Feb 16, 2013

Nárcisz és Psyché

If someone were to take up the ambitious yet seemingly futile task of synthesizing the major ideas of Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto (1848) and Oswald Spengler’s two-volume tome The Decline of the West (1918-1923) and attempt to direct a highly experimental cinematic epic about the fall of the European aristocracy in the form of a libertine love story vaguely in the spirit of Gone with the Wind (1939), it might resemble Nárcisz és Psyché (1980) aka Narcissus and Psyche directed by Hungarian auteur Gábor Bódy (Amerikai Anzix aka American Postcard, Kutya éji dala aka The Dog's Night Song) and starring German heartthrob Udo Kier (Blood for Dracula, My Own Private Idaho) in what is probably the single greatest performance of his career as an actor; a sentiment he apparently shares despite having appeared in over 200+ films. The single largest-scale Hungarian production of its era, Narcissus and Psyche was released in three versions; an original 210 minute two part cut, a 136 minute cut for international distribution and a 270 minute three part epic made for television, the last of which I was luckily able to view. Described by director Bódy as, “a story of present times, and even though the characters are wearing costumes from the past, the epoch they are a witness to exists outside the limits of history,” Narcissus and Psyche is a forlorn fantasy film and quasi-psychedelic period piece of sorts that simultaneously chronicles the tragedy of an exceedingly passionate yet perversely plagued love affair that was ‘never meant to be’ between two lovers who never age and the dramatically changing sociopolitical climate of Europe, most specifically the Hapsburg Empire/Hungary over a 130 year period, thus concluding during the rise of National Socialism. Based on a collection of poetry entitled Psyché (1972) written by Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres but also centering on biographical anecdotes from the author’s life, as well as an almost entirely fictional account of the ‘romantic’ relationship between German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and Russian-born psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé (male protagonist "Narcissus" being based on Nietzsche and female protagonist "Psyche" based on Andreas-Salomé), Narcissus and Psyche also makes for a dolorous tribute to great European cultural producers and wordsmiths of the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century or as auteur Gábor Bódy stated, “I tried to make this story a myth, a myth of antagonism born of our European culture, according to which men and women can only find their physical and intellectual liberty at the expense of others. And in spite of 35 years of socialism, my generation is still living in this antagonism.” A most morose yet magical cinematic saga of sordid sensuality, spiritual and somatic sickness, social strife, syphilis, and striking surrealism about the perfectly contradictory odd couple – a downright debauched mixed blood countess and a (would be) morally noble, poetic genius of a peasant – Narcissus and Psyche is one of those rare aesthetically astonishing works one cannot believe even exist upon seeing it and may very well be the most underrated and under seen film epic ever made, or at the very least, the one that every single one of the millions of female Udo Kier have always dreamed of, but will never see.

Born in the year 1795 to a mother who was a gypsy girl’s bastard child turned countess (after having been adopted by a count) and a Hungarian nobleman, countess Psyche aka Erzsébet Mária Lónyay (played by Patricia Adriani), came from a family whose nobility was recognized by the Habsburg Monarchy, but not their rank. When Psyche was only three years old, her mother started a relationship with the famous gypsy violinist János Bihari and decided to run away to a Romani settlement, taking her daughter with her where she would spend the rest of her childhood, thus missing out on the advantages of being an aristocrat. After her mother died, Psyche was raised by the violinist’s poor relatives and other kindhearted local yokels, which would lead her to meeting her one true love "Narcissus" aka László Tóth Ungvárnémeti (played by Udo Kier with bleached blond hair); the inordinately intelligent yet increasingly megalomaniacal poet son of a pastor. As it becomes quite apparent from the beginning of Narcissus and Psyche, Psyche – whose maternal ancestral origins were the product of bestial lust as opposed to love – is an accursed wanton wild child who does what she wants whenever she wants, including maliciously offending the manners of the patently pretentious and anally retentive aristocrats of her class, including randomly sitting on a lad’s lap and forcing him to partake in coitus with her, but not before he states to her quite disparagingly, "I am a swordsman, horseman, I do not want a vampire to drain my strength," in a feeble attempt to deny her carnal charms. A patently perverse yet pure of spirit poetess of both wayward words and actions, Psyche is especially perturbed by the fact that perennial narcissist Narcissus – a classicist poet and walking anachronism who tries to uphold noble ideas from antiquity who believes, "only in the aesthetic and historic authority of the Greek-Latin gods," and wants to do something great and noteworthy with his life to compensate up for his humble beginnings – will not have intimate sex with the carnal countess because of his supposed love and respect for her, or so he says. One gets the feeling that Narcissus thinks to himself, "Tis Pity She's a Whore," but ironically, the physical and eventual psychological ruin from a literal whore; a fleshpeddler who reminded him of Psyche.

 When Narcissus receives a bad case of the “French disease” (syphilis) from a prostitute (many believe that Nietzsche’s descent into madness was the result of receiving the same STD from a hooker), Psyche’s man’s cock is semi-permanently blocked, at least until they can find a cure, which the perverted poetess (Narcissus is annoyed by the “sensual” and “soiled” nature of her poems) will gladly pay for. Of course, Psyche has physical problems of her own because she was raped by her own brother-in-law and impregnated, which the quasi-incestuous rapist was quite agitated by, so he punched the expecting mother of his pesky would-be-progeny in the stomach, thereupon inducing a miscarriage and internal bleeding that does not cease until Narcissus brings his true love to a seemingly sinister doctor who keeps creepy deformed fetuses in formaldehyde sitting out for all his patients to see. Always the opportunist looking to advance his place in society, Narcissus converts from Calvinism to Catholicism so he can receive a scholarship from the Archbishop of Eger to study in Budapest where he trades professions, going from a poet to a scientist, thus pushing his poetess further away. Out of desperation, Psyche hooks up with a wealthy and eccentric nobleman/freemason named Maximilian Freiherr von Zedlitz (György Cserhalmi) – a man modeled after German philosopher Immanuel Kant – who wants to marry her and reminds her of the father she has much contempt for, so naturally the lascivious lady goes back to being sexually promiscuous with some political revolutionaries and even becomes pregnant with one of their babies (the father being unknown), but the baby is eventually disposed of by her uncle so as not to ruin the family’s already wavering reputation.

As Narcissus’ syphilis worsens, so does his megalomania, which is only all the more compounded when he is forced to sell his poetic masterpiece “Narcissist “– a classical and highly reflective work – which, to his utter and devastating dismay is eventually adapted into a superlatively sleazy, sexually degenerate, and curiously campy Vaudevillian play (performed at a place where Teutonic Neuer Deutscher Film 'diva of death' Ingrid Caven does a performance similar to her solos in Daniel Schmid’s 1974 high-camp masterpiece La Paloma). Unable to sire children due to the rotting of his reproductive system via syphilis, Narcissus accepts his life of loneliness and Psyche decides to marry and have children with the mundane yet reliable and respectable Maximilian Freiherr von Zedlitz. Destitute and dying from the STD that ultimately severed any hope of a marriage and kids with his beloved, Narcissus requests that Psyche make love to him before he perishes into eternity, which she obliges, thus ending an unfulfilled love affair that was doomed due to circumstance and human stupidity. Of her man, Psyche confesses, “My great love…was terribly egoistic. Just as egoistic as the hero of his poetic tragedy, Narcissus, who was ill of mortals…self-loving…No one else could have written it…but him.” In a positively plodding and mostly miserable marriage with a fellow that is jealous of a dead man, Psyche dies in a questionable manner that is no less of a travesty than that of her dear Narcissus; the king of narcissists who like virtually all people suffering from his vehemently vainglorious mental affliction, had a deep-seated self-loathing that made him unable to get close to others, including the lady he loved for over a century, yet could never consummate with, hence, his deleterious need to tell her, “Your being a whore doesn’t matter…because you were born a whore.” Although they never aged a single day over the course of over a century, once the possibility of fulfilling their love for one another is extinguished, they finally succumb to metaphysical heartbreak and eventual death.

 A keenly kaleidoscopic depiction of a generally colorless period(s) in history, at least cinematically speaking, Narcissus and Psyche is a film that manages to do the seemingly impossible by bringing idiosyncratic poetry and intrigue to a culturally and socially declining period in history as a sort of Slavic Victorian gothic epic that makes Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) seem like a soullessly constructed work of epic banality, and I say that as a fan of both cinematic works. A film featuring literal flying pigs, Narcissus and Psyche is a work that makes it seem like anything is possible, at least when it comes to the now seemingly dying art of cinema and the civilization that created it. A work depicting the literal fall of empires (more specifically, The Habsburg Monarchy) and the decided death of a civilization, Narcissus and Psyche makes it quite clear by the end that money is now king. On top of temporarily moving to the United States to get away from the havoc and horrors of the Great War, Psyche comes to the realization that her aristocratic roots are worth nil when a rich America, which inherited much more money than any nobleman she knows, sees it as an absurd proposition for him to be a title of nobility as it no longer has any value, thus also accentuating the absurdity of Narcissus’ needless and heedless campaign for superficial greatness. As modern America has proven, you can be a crack-addicted illiterate felon or an overweight and barbaric meathead idiot, but if you can bastardize the English language to a simple beat without melody or tackle people hard enough, you can be a famous millionaire. That being said, I think it is safe to say that class and kultur died on the battlefields of both World Wars with directors like Gábor Bódy being the last remnants of a once-great kultur before technocratic postmodernism and globalization reared their ugly universalizing and homogenizing heads. Oddly, after about five years of completing Narcissus and Psyche, director Gábor Bódy died under dubious circumstances in what the authorities of his homeland Hungry, then a Soviet satellite, said was a suicide, but, despite pleas from his wife that he was murdered, no official investigation was conducted, thus making him a victim of communist criminality.  Although Narcissus and Psyche hints at the fact National Socialism – a political ideology motivated by the need to eradicate cultural decay, cosmopolitanism, and societal degeneration – put the final nail in the coffin of Occidental civilization, Uncle Adolf surely was not responsible for the grim cultural ethnic graveyard that is contemporary Eastern Europe; a place that both ironically sired yet slayed Gábor Bódy, one of its great cinematic artists.

-Ty E

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