Binding Sentiments is the second feature by Márta Mészáros, following The Girl (1968) and like the earlier film it is currently streaming on MUBI UK. As in The Girl, Kati Kovács takes a leading role, but in this case not as the protagonist. The film is shot in the CinemaScope ratio, featuring both crowded interiors and some sweeping location footage, especially in a lakeside resort.
The central character is Edit (Mari Töröcsik), who in the film’s opening sequence is seen travelling to the airport to formally receive the ashes of her husband who has died while on official business in Paris. He was a prominent academic turned politician and after a formal trip to a mausoleum in a motor cavalcade, Edit finally returns exhausted to her large city centre apartment where she meets her younger son Gáspár (Gáspár Jancsó). The older son István (Lajos Balázsovits) eventually arrives with his girlfriend Kati (Kati Kovács). All three younger people are students and the couple are sleeping together. The formalities are not yet over and Edit hosts a reception for many of her husband’s friends, colleagues and acquaintances (all men). She is clearly under a lot of strain but she conducts herself properly as she tries to follow proper procedures and deal with men who all knew her husband for different reasons. She has less formal meetings with her women friends. After everything has settled down, she finds herself alone with István and Kati. This whole section covering the husband’s internment and formal mourning makes up the first half of the narrative. The second half will focus on how Edit deals with her situation.
Edit’s husband either had family wealth prior to his political career or being a politician in Hungary in the 1950s and 1960s was very well rewarded. The family villa is marvellously situated with a view over the lake and vineyards around the house. Edit has a room with large windows that open directly on the lake view. But all is not well. István believes that his mother is depressed or ‘overwrought’ and he charges Kati with ‘looking after’ Edit – in practice being her gaoler. It may be that István feels that his mother does not properly recognise her husband’s legacy. In his room in the family apartment he had pinned up large blown-up photos of Kati alongside an image of Lenin. What we have now is a form of psychological drama. Edit is increasingly angry and determined to break out. Kati is unsure why she has been asked to act in this way and ambivalent about how she should behave. Mészáros offers us some examples of life outside the villa, including the antics of Gáspár and his friends. As in The Girl, there is an intriguing glimpse into popular culture for young people in Hungary in the late 1960s – and how it is viewed by the authorities.
This unusual film narrative has not been widely discussed online and some of the reviews I’ve seen seem just plain wrong in some respects. Márta Mészáros seems always to have made films about women’s relationships and often about relationships between women. When the psychological drama begins to develop it raises questions about three women in particular. As well as Edit and Kati, there are also the women of the region where the villa is situated and Edit meets her aunt who encourages her to indulge in a nostalgia for a more folkloric past. This evokes a very different Hungary to the promise of modernity pursued by Kati. Edit is placed between the the two worlds unsure of how to act. She had fallen out of love with her husband and though she accepts the material rewards that her position has brought her, she is seemingly uncomfortable with them, especially when they seem to anger Kati.
I’m sure that somewhere I have read a commentary on the film which refers to possible political metaphors about the relationship between Hungary and the Soviet Union. After the funeral, Edit and Manci (see the image above) mention 1956 when Edit’s husband fled the country in the face of Soviet intervention. This political subtext would make sense in terms of director Mészáros’ own biography and her continued interest in both women’s lives and the politics of Eastern Europe. However, I can’t now find such a commentary and I don’t feel equipped to pursue it here. (This film is the only one in MUBI’s selection that is not discussed in detail in the notes on the website.) So, I’ll just enjoy the visual splendour of the film as constructed by Mészáros and cinematographer János Kende, working relatively early in his distinguished career. The film looks wonderful in B+W ‘Scope but the documentary experience of Mészáros shines through, especially in relation to the actions of the young people and is not lost in the visual sweep of the lake, the villa and the hills. There is often pop/rock music playing when the young people are around – music in a similar style to West Coast American music of the late 1960s. There is also close attention to fashion and Edit’s son’s bedroom has a familiar image of Che Guevara. The lead performances are all strong. I just wish I could find out more about the film and its production – it seems a big step forward in terms of budget from The Girl.