Watching Béla Tarr's "The Outsider" was a similar experience for me to watching Bresson's "A Gentle Woman", in that both films saw me witnessing the use of color from a director that I had previously thought constitutionally incapable of anything but black-and-white. Tarr's vision of life, of course, is best suited to the black-and-white medium, as was Bresson's, but like "A Gentle Woman", the uncharacteristic use of color did nothing to sully my appreciation for this impressive film.
Tarr would become best known for his more formal, highly metaphysical works, such as "Damnation" and "Werckmeister Harmonies", but here, early in his career, we see him at the completely opposite end of the cinematic spectrum. In his early features, instead of sheer, unmitigated formalism, Tarr opted for absolute realism. These films are more political, where his later work tends to be more philosophical (nihilistic, specifically). Instead of Tarkovsky-esque camera-work infused with a certain Bressonian drabness, which is the style that dominates Tarr's later films, what we get here is something closer to Cassavetes than to Tarkovsky or Bresson.
Whether Tarr hadn't fully formed his vision of life and of cinema yet, or whether he simply didn't have the means to make films any other way at this point, I can't say for sure. But what's certain is that these early Tarr films are a completely different experience. An inferior one, ultimately, but they're still impressive films in their own right.
Tarr's debut feature, "Family Nest", from 1979, was a black-and-white exercise in kitchen sink realism, which is as dissimilar to the style of his later work as one can possibly imagine. Nevertheless, "Family Nest" bears some similarities to those later films in terms of content. All Tarr's films seem to incorporate characters who are trapped and paralyzed by either social or existential conditions. In "Family Nest", an indictment of the Hungarian society and government of the time, the prison was a social one, not a metaphysical one. As a result, there was actually an implication that, if freed from the oppressive weight of this flawed society, these characters might actually be able to find some degree of happiness. Characters in future Tarr films would not be so fortunate. In those films, it was the oppressive weight of human existence that imprisoned them, and that, unlike society, is entirely inescapable.
"The Outsider", released in 1981, continued predominately in the realist mode of "Family Nest". Tarr decided to go with color here, which was effective despite being inconsistent with his other films, but otherwise the style here is very similar to his first film. In both cases we have a low budget production with hand-held camera-work, nonprofessional actors (I believe),and an overall realist aesthetic. However, unlike "Family Nest", there are moments in "The Outsider" that really do move toward formalism. So you can tell that Tarr did at least have that vision inside of him when he made this film, even if he was just beginning to express it, and to nourish it as it evolved bit by bit into what would eventually become his preferred style of filmmaking.
Other than the superficial change to color, the place where "The Outsider" can be most contrasted with "Family Nest" is the source of the conflict, which was external in "Family Nest", and is internal in "The Outsider". On a content level, "The Outsider" is a bit of a cross between a traditional exercise in social realism and an existential meditation on the human spirit (i.e. Ingmar Bergman). In "Family Nest", the problems that were responsible for the misery of the central characters were largely external, originating outwardly in their flawed environment and social milieu. In "The Outsider", the fundamental barrier that stands between our protagonist and happiness is an inner one.
This chicken-egg conundrum was eventually resolved by Tarr, by the time he reached "Damnation", maybe before. In "Family Nest", the despairing human spirit is an echo of a broken social climate. The misery begins on the outside, and is carried inward by victims of a flawed system. In "The Outsider", however, this model of human suffering is reversed. Society is the fractured form spawned from existential discontent, an inherent burden of the human condition. Misery originates in the interior world of the human soul, and ripples outward into society, thus moving in a direction opposite to the one it took in "Family Nest".
Finally, in "Damnation" and Tarr's subsequent works, the question of from where human misery originates is resolved. Or, rather, I should say, it is ignored all together. It has been asked, and no answer having been found, it is set aside as inconsequential. In "Damnation", neither the tormented interior world of the soul nor the desolate exterior landscapes hold the source of human despair. Anguish is simply a reality of human life, and so we find it in both worlds: the internal and the external. The forsaken, barren landscapes of the physical world are simply a reflection of the anguish in our souls, and conversely, the suffering that is inherent to the human soul is merely a reflection of the cold and harsh universe that envelops us. The inner and the outer worlds of human existence are mirror images, and in that image we find despair, anguish, and misery. There is no origin.
Ultimately, "The Outsider" is a formative work for Tarr, and by no means one of his best films, but by any other standards than the extremely high ones that Tarr has set for himself with his more recent films, it's a legitimately impressive film. Expect something closer to Michael Fengler's "Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?" and not "Werckmeister Harmonies", for instance, and this will hopefully be as satisfying for you as it was for me. I much prefer formalism to realism, but in the latter category, it doesn't get too much better than this.
RATING: 8.00 out of 10 stars