On Friday I guessed that Gyorgy Palfi’s Free Fall (which screens once more at the Chicago International Film Festival on Thursday at 2:30 PM) would not disappoint viewers looking for something weird. I was right. I couldn’t look away from this unclassifiable Hungarian feature when I caught it over the weekend. Palfi’s imagery evokes classic surrealism, alluding to repressed anxieties about sex and death as they might manifest themselves in dreams. And like many of the first-generation surrealists, Palfi is a meticulous realist with regards to the environments in which his dream scenarios unfold. It doesn’t seem coincidental that certain areas of the housing complex where the movie takes place recall locations in Cristi Puiu’s hyperrealist The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.
Palfi’s use of digital video is a crucial element of the uncanny vibe. The director and his effects team manipulated the imagery in postproduction to create lighting effects that would be impossible with traditional methods. Each area of the screen seems to be illuminated by a separate spotlight, and when Palfi presents faces or objects against dark backgrounds the digitally deepened blacks make the subjects appear even more pronounced; everything seems real, but only more so. It’s never quite surprising when some outre development occurs in Free Fall—when we see a man is embedded in the wall of one of the building’s stairwells, for instance, or when Palfi reveals that two of the tenants have converted their apartment into a sterile, futuristic pleasure dome. In the back of your mind, you always know that something’s off.
For some time now, David Fincher has been using the tools of digital filmmaking to similar ends. The director blends the genuine and the synthetic so seamlessly that you’re never quite sure which is which. That ambiguity is front and center in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but it pervades all his movies, generating a sense of unease even during moments of seemingly mundane activity. (Rarely does the lighting in Fincher’s films correspond to anything I’ve encountered in life.) In this regard, Fincher is one of the crucial filmmakers of our time, as every image he makes reflects our increasingly symbiotic relationship with technology.
I happened to catch Fincher’s Gone Girl a few days before seeing Free Fall, and I often found myself thinking of the former while watching the latter. Palfi’s film is in part about the devaluation of human life in post-Communist eastern Europe. Several of the scenarios involve people transforming their bodies in unreal ways, and in some of the others ordinary-looking bodies are rendered strange by the surroundings. (I don’t want to go into detail about these scenarios. If you see the movie—and I recommend that you do—it’s best to go in cold.) Much like DV imagery, the human bodies in Free Fall can be manipulated endlessly. So too can Fincher’s characters, not least Ben Affleck’s Nick Dunne in Gone Girl. Throughout the film Dunne tweaks his persona to conform to whatever image other people deem appropriate for him. He can be Prince Charming, a concerned husband, or a repentant philanderer—anything the situation calls for. (Dunne isn’t just the quintessential Fincher protagonist, but also the character Affleck, who often comes off as superficial onscreen, was born to play.) Like Free Fall, Gone Girl seems designed expressly for a big screen, as the digital enhancements look even creepier when you can scrutinize every little, inhuman detail.