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What Happens When You Lose an Actor In the Delta

Screenwriter, essayist and professor emerita in New York University Graduate Film School, Yvette Biro has collaborated with film directors such as Miklós Jancsó, Zoltán Fábri and Károly Makk in her native Hungary, as well as with other internationally-known directors. Her most recent book -- Turbulence and Flow in Film, published in 2008 by Indiana University Press -- appeared in both in French and English. After viewing Delta and learning that its screenwriter was here in the U.S., a very short Q&A commenced via email.
Yvette Biro

Q: Were you always connected with the movie in both versions, the earlier one featuring the actor who died suddenly, and the current version? If so, how was it to work with a different cast on the same material? Did you have to make a lots of script changes to accommodate the new cast? And, do you feel that the movie might be better in this later version?

YB: The first version was truly different because we were closer to the original-classical Electra story. In this one, the murder of the father (though only as the basic situation and departure point,) defined the Electra's motivations and later the brother’s actions. It was their passion of taking revenge on the mother and her new accomplice-lover. Also, Electra was on the side of the people, against the rudeness of the new “governing power.” In a bit more hopeful ending, only the brother could escape, Electra became a victim, perishing in the fight.

With the tragic death of the original actor who played the brother we had to simplify the story, focusing more on the relationship of the siblings. They became naturally close to each other in this hostile environment, having in the background the denied crime. The restrained incest was always there.
From Delta
Q: The film is considered Hungarian, yet it is set in Romania, in what looks like a small town, amongst people who would be called here, a very “small-town” mentality: unpleasant, small-minded, hypocritical, nasty, angry, jealous, murderous, in fact. Is Romania the country of choice for folk who mirror these adjectives, or might the same thing be found in the small towns of Hungary (or Germany, where, I believe, some of the production money came from)...

YB: Right, the film is Hungarian but the physical environment had its inspiring function with its natural beauty and peacefulness. It was the landscape that had its primordial force in the articulation of the story: maintaining the remoteness, without the overemphasized social or ethnic background.

Q: Did you or the director ever envision any other outcome for these characters? Could the story have taken any path that might have proven more hopeful?The brother and sister from Delta

YB: We found that the wonderful idea to build a house, to work together, is simple and by principle, great, showing hope and looking for a better future. This common understanding and closeness are more significant than the guarded incest. Their love becomes natural, though timid, and not a scandalous, erotic sin.

Q: The film is odd and interesting because it sets up a taboo (incest) and then breaks it -- partially because the possible mates that these two characters have to choose from seems a pretty puny bunch: They can either choose each other, which is, in most societies, a no-no, or pick someone from the gallery of creeps on display. Only the girl’s uncle seems remotely like a decent guy. Whoops -- that would be semi-incestuous, too. Any thoughts on this?

YB: Yes. Thus the solution that they are not only excommunicated but punished to death became an unfortunately undeniable truth today: “Otherness” and having different habits, ways of living, is rarely accepted, and intolerance and hatred can often be regrettably violent. With this sorrowful recognition we got closer to our everyday experience.

Lost in the Hungarian "Delta"

director Kornél Mundruczó Delta Poster
screenplay by Yvette Biro
starring Felix Lajko, Orsolya Toth

When Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó was nearly finished filming Delta, his lead actor suddenly died. The filmmaker had to begin again and -- given the chemistry that exists between actors -- had to was recruit an almost entirely new cast. The whole film was shot a second time. Changes occurred in this second filming that rendered the finished movie heavy-handed -- at least according to the screenwriter Yvette Biro. The story's ending is where the moviemakers started, working backwards and piecing together a plot that would ensure their planned finale.

A young man returns "home" to a Hungarian town located along the Danube. His father has died, his mother has taken up with a new man, while his sister, with whom he has had little previous acquaintance, works in the family's bar. The young man is clearly not welcomed, except by the sister, but he sets up living quarters in an old family shack by the river. As sis and bro grow closer, they are warned repeatedly yet pay no mind. Everyone we meet in this movie -- except brother, sister and an uncle -- is downright unpleasant, and when complications ensue (don't they always?), there is little question what will happen.

The views of the Danube are lovely indeed, but the humanity that wallows within quickly grow tiresome. All of its activities are joyless and bleak. Not one speaks much -- there is little dialog here -- and this is probably just as well. The film's slowThe Sister at the Danube pace allows us to consider the society of eastern Europe, under the thumbs of feudal lords, the aristocracy, Communist dictatorships and finally -- oh god, no -- some bastardized form of capitalism, reducing the populace to a bunch of petty, nasty, small-minded hypocrites.

Delta is full of interesting shots: silhouettes and bodily extremities; only after some time has passed does the director allow us many close-ups of his characters. The "hero" in particular (played by Lajko) remains a mystery. Laconic in the extreme, he finally turns from low-key passive into someone hot and fraught. The sister, too (Toth), is a girl of few words, yet both performers are attractive and interesting enough to hold our attention. You could call the movie "primal," though in modern times, backward seems more appropriate. 

"The Yellow Handkerchief" boasts A Terrific Ensemble

The Yellow Handkerchief Kristen Stewart
directed by Udayan Prasad
adapted from a story by Pete Hamill; screenplay by Erin Dignam
starring William Hurt, Kristen Stewart, Maria Bello, Eddie Redmayne

A feel-good film that does its job quietly, The Yellow Handkerchief also boasts a quartet of fine actors working up to or rather above snuff. Directed by Prasad (My Son, the Fanatic) -- adapted by screenwriter Dignam from a story by Hamill -- this small, 96-minute movie combines past/present and older/younger generations into a nearly seamless fabric that provoked a puddle of happy tears.

One reason The Yellow Handkerchief works so well is the smart interweaving of flashback with the present that Dignam and Prasad have contrived. Though the audience is constantly thrust back and forth in time, these near-immediate transitions augur gracefully enough the sense that something terrible has happened. 

The film begins with the release from prison of a lonely, uncertain character, played with Hurt's usual skill (and zero grandstanding). Yet, the queasiness felt about Hurt's character is almost immediately offset by positives: another inmate grasps his hand warmly upon saying goodbye, telling him with restrained feeling, "We don't wanna see you back here." One after another, these small, good things pile up, and soon we're in Hurt's corner, rooting for him.

The film is about, among other subjects, how strangers come together, and it's a lot more believable in its initial meetings and getting-to-know-you than most films of this type. Even the small-town southern police force seen in this post-Katrina world, if not exactly "kind," at least doesn't exhibit the over-the-top nasty behavior that's more typically presented.

This film is also about caring. "I wanted to make someone care about me," says Martine (the lovely Stewart) by way of explaining why she has hooked up with Hurt's character. What does it take to get others to care about us? The film asks this question implicitly, thank goodness. One of the pleasures of this movie is how softly it treads. People behave and interact; through this we learn all we need to know, as bit by bit the past becomes clear. And when, finally, an explanation is called for, we -- and the characters -- are ready for it.

In addition to Stewart, who grows lovelier and whose acting strengthens with each film, is Bello, who, though she occupies mostly the past, is such a strong actress that she makes that past quite present. But the fourth wheel here is Redmayne (Elizabeth:The Golden Age, The Good Shepherd, Savage Grace and Powder Blue), who brings his unique combination of sweetness, charm and quirk to the mix. 

So tight is this little acting ensemble as they beautifully play off each other (there are no other characters of any note in the movie) that by the finale, they've fully earned the tears you'll shed. For anyone who has wondered what it takes to make someone care about you, here's the chance to see how that works.

For other reviews and articles by James Van Maanen go to:

Swimming In the "Fish Tank"

Fish Tank
directed by Andrea Arnold
If her 2006 film Red Road put British filmmaker Andrea Arnold on the cinematic radar, her new film Fish Tank should keep her on track. Relying less on plot, surprise and coincidence than did her earlier endeavor, this one rests mainly on character, and on the very fine new actress Katie Jarvis who brings the film to life.

Onscreen for almost the movie's entirety, Jarvis, who had never acted professionally before, grows more interesting as the story progresses — even through the one major plot implausibility that writer-director Arnold throws at us near the end.

It has been over half a century since the the British gifted the world with what the media called "kitchen sink dramas," which often featured an archetypal angry young man. Times change: The sinks are more modern, and now the anger is radiating from a young woman of 15.

Mia, living in an Essex housing project, has much to be mad about, starting with her distant, slatternly mom (Kierston Wareing) and her bratty little sister (Rebecca Griffiths). Into an already fractured household, mom introduces her latest boyfriend, Connor, played by the immensely appealing and versatile Michael Fassbender. He shows her empathy and caring, but as a surrogate father or as a lover? The fire starts slowly but sparks fly.

Arnold is a naturalistic filmmaker: Her ambient sound is filled with distant cursing and her visuals are fairly bursting with working-class and on-the-dole life. You'll think of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, among others. Dance figures into the scenario, as well, and Arnold makes excellent use of it, from her observations of a schoolgirl group to how dance draws Mia and Connor together, from the highly sexualized audition process to a final dance that becomes both telling and moving via its low-key circumstance and the director's smart refusal to dictate any emotional buttons.

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