by Adriano di Pietro
- Prostitution is filtered through the fantastical mind of an Eastern European woman in Szabolcs Hajdu’s fourth feature
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. All stories, however fantastic, have a basis in reality. This simple premise is the idea behind Hungarian director Szabolcs Hajdu’s impressive feature Bibliothèque Pascal [+see also:
interview: Szabolcs Hajdu - director
interview: Szabolcs Hajdu
film profile], which tells the ugly and horrible story of a woman sold into prostitution as if it were a dark fairy tale.
In one of Bibliothèque Pascal’s key scenes, the protagonist, half-Romanian, half-Hungarian Mona (actress Orsolya Török-Illyés, the director’s wife), is seen at a wintry country fair somewhere in Eastern Europe, telling a fantastical story involving angels that has the crowd captivated. It is clear she is a natural storyteller. It is mirrored by a scene, towards the end of the film, where Mona’s aunt Radica (Romanian acting veteran Oana Pellea) is seen at a similar event, selling tickets to see Mona’s little daughter, Viorica (Lujza Hajdu), perform a fantastical – in all senses of the word – feat of storytelling that very few people could pull off but that was also mastered by Viorica’s father, a handsome but homophobic rogue (Andi Vasluianu).
In both instances, on the surface, the scenes seem to be about putting on a good show for an audience, and of course, this is an important element. But it is far from the most important thing in these scenes: in reality, the stories Mona and Viorica tell are transpositions of other, largely buried stories. Stories that may be too horrible to be confronted directly, or in too much detail.
The locale that gives Bibliothèque Pascal its enigmatic title is an upscale sex club in Liverpool, where Mona is forced to work after having been sold into the trade. The club is operated by dandy gentleman Pascal (Shamgar Amram), who, like many in the film, hides a nasty streak or two behind an extremely well-groomed exterior.
In what may be another embellished truth, there is nothing seedy about the sex club at all, which is frequented by intellectuals and members of British high society. The women, men and, yes, children, on offer here all have their own theme room inspired by famous novels and plays, and Mona is first put to work in the Joan of Arc-room, where she is made to recite lines from the George Bernard Shaw play of the same name for costumers ¬– even though she does not speak a word of English when she arrives (the way literature, with its books that are a physical manifestation of storytelling, is used to give acts of sexual perversion a sheen of respectability is particularly inventive).
Hajdu’s play between reality and fantasy, between highbrow and lowbrow and between education and instinct are aided by the spectacular cinematography of Andras Nagy, which underlines the storytelling aspects with beautifully choreographed shots that, through their distance, also help remind the audience that what they are seeing is nothing but a story. The film’s somewhat shocking last shot enhances this idea.
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