I was given a bootleg copy of Taxidermia about a year ago, before its North American release. True to bootleg copies, the disc went kaput about fifteen minutes into it, leaving me with the opening scene burned into my brain: the image of a flaming orgasm. Fire literally shoots out of a man’s penis.
When I had the opportunity to review this critically recognized and awarded Hungarian film, I was excited to get past the opening scene. All the reviews praised the cinematography and aesthetics of this film, with one caveat—if you can stomach it.
I will freely admit that I could barely stomach it. The flaming orgasm was only the tip of the phallic iceberg. Other masturbation and sex scenes prevailed. Again, tolerable. But then came the pig slaughter, and the subsequent sex scene on top of the pig entrails. I felt myself slinking down in my seat, looking around at my fellow reviewers, hoping someone else would walk out. But they sat tight, so I did as well, queasily.
Director György Pálfi’s Taxidermia is the story of three generations of men in Hungary. The grandfather Vendel Morosgovanyi, the pyro-masturbator, is an orderly for a crude family in the countryside, searching for love. His son Kalman becomes a competitive eater, pursuing victory as voraciously as a professional athlete. Finally Lajos, the last of this family, becomes the film’s namesake: a taxidermist seeking to preserve his own mortality.
The competitive eating chapter pushed me to the point of gagging, so I won’t indulge you with the details except that it involves vomiting and gorging on gelatinous delicacies. And the gruesome finale is a spectacle in itself. Self-taxidermy with the precision of a sculptor’s chisel.
However, lest this review be too tainted by my hang-ups, there are very impressive elements of this film that deserve noting.
A film like this makes me think, why? Is it a satire, a parody, or just sensation? There are plenty of torture films out there that probably rival the grotesque found here (such as the neverending Saw franchise), I just don’t go see them. Taxidermia should not be categorized with those films, because the purpose of this film is not to shock and disgust. This is a film about a family, linked by desire.
The cinematography truly is beautiful. A mix of realism, surrealism, and magical realism create an almost erotic experience, which makes the grotesque that much more disturbing. Two of my favorite scenes come in the first part, as the camera circles a wooden tub that is used for everything in a family’s daily life: to cradle a baby, to bathe in, to knead dough on, to hold the body of a dead relative, and to hold the recently slaughtered pig. It’s so beautifully and seamlessly shot that you forget about the unsavory details of this arrangement. The other scene is in Vendel’s imagination, as he walks into a three-dimensional fairytale storybook.
Consider yourself warned regarding the grotesque, and if you do go see Taxidermia, focus on what Pálfi is really doing here. If you can handle the sight of bodily fluids and animal slaughter, you will experience a unique story, set against a gray backdrop of intensity and hopelessness.