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Home / Film / Home Video / Dance of the Firebird: Freedom, Femininity, Power and Paganism in Miklós Jancsó’s Electra, My Love

Dance of the Firebird: Freedom, Femininity, Power and Paganism in Miklós Jancsó’s Electra, My Love

 

Truth speaks, and law
Accursed be every tyrant and blessed every man who resists tyranny.
Blessed be every man whom a tyrant destroys.
Its conclusion provides its testament to the firebird:

Brighter than the sun,
More lovely than a jewel,
It was born of man’s eternal dreams,
Its father was liberty,
Its mother happiness.
When landlords and factory owners have passed into history, when there is no longer bourgeoisie or proletariat, only then will man have a life of liberty, joy, and peace.

Yet the firebird shall still fly above us and perish daily,
to be born yet more lovely on the morrow.
Blessed be your name—revolution.

electra-blu-ray-coverRhythmic, bewitching, steeped in Hungarian peasant culture, Miklós Jancsó’s ballad of truth and justice, Electra, My Love (1974), was a film crying out to be upgraded to Blu-ray. Now, thanks to Second Run’s ongoing mission to restore so much vital, yet obscure, film to the realm of home video, it has been. And after only having seen this previously in a very poor, degraded, DVD release, I found the results to be quite a revelation. Especially when you consider the spellbinding artistry on show and Jancsó’s bold sense of unmistakable style.  

It is difficult to summarize what makes Electra, My Love so magical, without showing people exactly what you mean. Like much of Jancsó’s early to midpoint cinema, mechanical details, like narrative structure, almost takes second place to the art of visual spectacle. This is cinema that needs to be experienced, rather than discussed.The director’s vision of Greek tragedy—an adaptation of László Gyurkó’s play inspired by Greek mythology; legend immortalised in Ancient Greek drama by Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus—encompasses many of the same themes for which Jancsó is remembered: in essence it is an exploration of power and oppression, a theme he continued to revisit time and time again. Yet Electra is anything but tragic in its central messages. Surprisingly upbeat, optimistic even, the parting message contrasts with the nihilism found in much of his earlier work.

Electra, My Love (1974)

Electra, My Love (1974)

Speaking from a completely personal perspective, although I respect the position of many that choose to place the director’s earlier works—films like The Round-Up (1966), The Red and the White (1967), The Confrontation (1969)—at the top of the food chain, for me it is his seventies and early eighties cinema that really has my heart.  Although the director was never one for following formula or structure, at least not to any conventional degree, from Winter Wind (1969) and Red Psalm (1972) onwards, you can trace the progression of a sensual playful attitude which creeps in but then starts to take over completely by the early seventies— often signified with ribbons, balloons, open air sex, incest, bubbles and general frivolity. And even though nudity is a key factor even in those earlier pictures, in his nascent period, clothing— and especially uniform—constitutes power. To take one’s clothes is to humiliate and disarm; in The Red and the White, for example, people are often stripped of their clothes before being shot at point blank range. By Winter Wind (1969) nudity came to signify something far more daring: to be naked could also mean to be powerful (although the uniforms still continued to have significance too). From this point, a raw primal energy begins to flow through Jancsó’’s work: women are often seen baring their breasts in defiance against tyranny; full frontal nudity is rife for both sexes; public ceremony becomes almost sexualised—and then completely sexualised by Private Vices, Public Virtues (1976), the film that directly followed Electra—and there is an obvious linking of the body to the land, generated through the rhythmic energy of a collective spirit captured in a constant frenzy of movement and dance. There is something decidedly pagan about this, when taken as a sum of all its parts—the folk music, the art of ritual, nature based themes, the use of the Hungarian plains, and mystical elements—Electra, My Love conjures a language that associates total freedom with being at one with the landscape and rural folk culture. In this regard the film makes a perfect companion to Jancsó’s earlier Red Psalm, where pagan motifs, such as a maypole, are a prominent part of the look and feel of the picture.

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Electra, My Love (1974)

It would be easy to assume that this free spirited approach links directly to the burgeoning hippie movement of the era, but it can be traced back much further. The clue is in the director’s attachment to Hungarian folk song and dance; in particular to Béla Bartók; whose solo piano piece Allegro Barbaro serves to accompany death/resurrection/re-birth as Electra takes her curtain call, whilst delivering her final ode to freedom from tyranny. Jancsó would go on to use Allegro Barbaro again, in a film named after Bartók’s piece, the second part of his Vitam et Sanguinem trilogy—Hungarian Rhapsody being the first installment; Concerto, the third part, was never made.

Composer Bartók played a pivotal role in what Carl S. Leafstedt describes as the “generation of 1900” in Hungary, explaining:

“The two decades prior to World War I embraced a period of tremendous vitality in the creative arts in Hungary. As in the rest of Europe, a brilliant array of minds blossomed during this period, challenging accepted modes of expression in literature, music, drama, and the visual arts, and creating a multitude of strongly defined individual styles […] The members of this “generation of 1900”, as they have sometimes been called, reacted in various complex ways to the society that surrounded them, often revealing dissatisfaction with the cultural values held by bourgeois, industrial society of which they were part”[1].

For Béla Bartók, this creativity involved collecting the songs from Hungarian peasant culture, which in turn inspired his own original compositions. It is perhaps not surprising that Jancsó, with an academic background in Folk Studies (as well as law) would be drawn to this approach. The filmmaker, speaking in an interview with Andrew James Horton for Kinoeye, described his personal interest in folk culture, by stating:

“I was a boy scout, and we travelled all over Hungary to little villages. At that time, villages were much more secluded and cut off, so we discovered some amazing things. It was quite anti-German, this movement. There was a situation where the Germans looked down on Slavic culture, and behind this idea the German people in Hungary and this folk movement was kind of a response to this, a form of cultural defence. If you haven’t lived here, you couldn’t understand”.[2]

Jancsó’s connection to Bartók was further cemented through his personal relationship with Béla Balázs; the director elaborating in the same interview, when asked about his route into cinema:

“I originally wanted to study theatre, though. When I was trying to get into the Academy of Film and Theatre [in Budapest], I was talking to two people. One of them, was Béla Balázs and he said “Why do you want to become a theatre director? You should study film.”He started the Hungarian film archives, and I was his assistant. So we got close. He was a very nice man. He died fairly young, in 1949. He wasn’t just a film historian and critic, he was also a very good Hungarian poet. He wrote two of Béla Bartók’s librettos”[3].

Electra, My Love (1974)

Electra, My Love (1974)

Drawing inspiration from his interest in both folk culture and theatre is at the very heart of Electra, My love; the result of which Peter Hames has dubbed, rather eloquently, a “ballet of oppression [4]”; with the formation of hundreds of dancers, swaying in an orgy of never ending movement, accompanying a narrative with deep political messages. As Kenneth McKinnon has speculated, “The most striking achievement of the film, as far as it relates to Greek tragedy, is in its triumphant demonstration of the power of choreographed movement to be the focus of the spectator’s attention”. The author concluding earlier on in his discussion,  “Where is it possible to detect a particular relation, if any, to Greek tragedy? What is basically a revenge tale has been invested with a new political, specifically East European political, significance by the play, that in turn has been converted into a parable about the necessity of perpetual revolution by the film”[5].

While there is a surreal, even otherworldly, aspect to Jancsó’s interpretation of events, Electra can be split solidly into a play of three distinct acts that digress from both the play, original myth and Greek drama. However, differences to one side, the addition of at least some structure makes Electra, a lot easier to follow than some of his earlier works; where he often avoided the use of central characters altogether. A fierce Mari Törőcsik takes up the role of Electra, who fifteen years after the death of her father Agamemnon, seeks to challenge leader, Aegisthus (József Madaras); the man who murdered her father, so he might claim the throne for himself. 

Electra, My Love (1974)

Electra, My Love (1974)

In act one, Electra is adamant the people must know the truth about Aegisthus, but is warned off by a number of factions, and told to leave her mission of revenge behind. Electra only seeks truth and justice, nothing else, continuing her quest to open the eyes of those blind to Aegisthus’ true motivations. “I was born to disturb the peace of men”, she declares with a defiant scowl. As matters move into act two, there is talk of Electra’s  brother Orestes returning. Aegisthus attempts to undermine his reputation, by telling the people Orestes only cares about women and drinking. But then Orestes, (or so people are told) turns up, declared dead on arrival; people celebrate over what they think is his corpse. This revelation is quickly followed by the arrival of another man (György Cserhalmi)claiming to be a messenger, who Electra inexplicably stabs, causing her to be accused of his murder, and giving Aegisthus the excuse he has been looking for to get rid of her. All the while the people are assembling for a celebration, where they are encouraged to tell the truth. Only Electra is willing to acknowledge that this isn’t the real truth; the reality is the people are too afraid to say what they really think. Which leads to the messenger’s resurrection, as the true Orestes, on the eve of Electra’s death sentence. The final denouement sees Aegisthus overthrown. As people rejoice, Electra and Orestes make a suicide pact; after their death, brother and sister are reborn again in a statement of freedom from oppression.

Electra, My Love (1974)

Electra, My Love (1974)

What is quite distinctive about Electra, when compared to Jancsó’s other works of the sixties and seventies, is the fact that the narrative is incredibly female-centric. Only one other film from this period, La Pacifista (1970), focuses on a female protagonist but Monica Vitti’s Barbara from the aforementioned Italian-French-German co-production is fuelled by a certain sense of fragility and neuroticism. Electra, by contrast, possesses a warrior spirit through and through. Her character signifies total freedom, truth and justice. The nurturing aspects that underpin her motivation shine through in Törőcsik’s tactile and commanding performance. Even as she spits venom at her oppressors, she caresses them in a display of sensual provocation. This is not to say Jancsó could be accused of ignoring women in his work prior to this. Just that up until this point his use of women was far more subtle. If you trace back through his filmography to the start, women often symbolize freedom, redemption and a connection to the primal forces of nature. Oppression and tyranny is firmly coded as male. Electra is simply an extension of this theme. An earth mother, who expresses her love for the people in dance, song and in her touch. Bitterness, deceit and blood thirst belong to her male peers alone, and it is her role to expose and challenge this, without once compromising. This feeling of feminine power as a redemptive force is further enhanced throughout the narrative by various acts from the wider cast: as men engage in battle, women stand at peace, naked, adorned in tribal body paint, in a pool of blood red water; Lajos Balázsovits character, Vezér, who previously stood beside Aegisthus, is encouraged to free himself by stripping free away his clothes, and engaging in a sexualised dance with his female lover; as Electra encourages the pair, dancing alongside them. 

Electra, My Love (1974)

Electra, My Love (1974)

It is perhaps because of this shift in focus, that Electra is a tale which leaves matters on such a high note. Freedom being at the core of the narrative, which is not only symbolised by femininity, but also in a connection to nature; especially birds. As the film opens, and an army of men thundering out from clouds of mist on horseback, attention quickly turns to Electra discussing her mission to expose Aegisthus, with a glorious peacock prominent in the foreground. This theme continues on through the piece, as the conclusion ends with a speech about a red firebird, depicted, rather startlingly by the arrival of a bright red helicopter.

This edition from Second Run is not only the world premiere of the film on Blu-ray, but comes with some valuable extras. Amongst these is a sixteen page booklet by expert Peter Hames that provides extensive analysis on the film, and an impressive interview The Evolution of the Long Take, which features Jancsó’s cinematographer János Kende discussing the jaw dropping technical feats often witnessed in the director’s films, and how they were achieved. For Electra specifically, the film was shot in just twelve long takes, with an extensive cast of extras never once static: the constant movement—dance, ceremony, people riding on horses, people whipping the air—winding in a circular motion is relentless from start to finish, and the camera never once misses a beat. Kende outlines some of the difficulties involved in this approach, lending for a richer, deeper appreciation of the piece, while highlighting the commitment poured into its making.

Electra, My Love (1974)

Electra, My Love (1974)

The Bottom Line.

On the surface Electra, My Love is not an easy film to summarise; it dances to the rhythm of its own peculiar beat, and despite the political messages is a film that invites an emotional connection for a richer experience. This Blu-ray upgrade paves the way for the film to be experienced as a bold statement of art, theatre and dance it really is. Recommended to anyone who enjoys the surreal pleasures of seventies cinema as art in its purest form, this is a fine attempt at restoring at least part of the legacy of one of Hungary’s most powerful filmmakers of all time. Thoroughly recommended.

Electra, My Love (1974)

Electra, My Love (1974)

[1] Leafstedt, Carl S (1999) Inside Bluebard’s Castle: Music and Drama in Béla Bartók’s Opera. p.3
[2] James Andrew Horton (2003) This silly profession Miklós Jancsó interviewed. Accessed at: https://www.kinoeye.org/03/03/interview03.php
[3] Ibid
[4] Hames, Peter (2003) The denial of oppression Miklós Jancsó’s Szerelmem, Elektra (Elektreia, 1974), Magyar rapszódia (Hungarian Rhapsody, 1978) and Allegro Barbaro (1978). Accessed at: https://www.kinoeye.org/03/03/hames03.php
[1]  McKinnon,Kenneth (1986) Greek Tragedy into Film. pp. 122-23

About Kat Ellinger

Kat Ellinger is the Editor-in-Chief at Diabolique Magazine, and the co-host of their Daughters of Darkness and Hell's Belles podcasts. She has also written for BFI, Senses of Cinema, Fangoria and Scream Magazine, and provided various home video supplements, commentary, liner notes, on camera interviews and audio essays, for a number of companies including Arrow Films, Kino Lorber, Indicator, Second Run and Cult Films. Kat is the author of Daughters of Darkness (Devil's Advocates, Auteur), and All the Colours of Sergio Martino (Arrow Films).

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