Marta Meszaros’ Adoption (1975) is a very special sort of “women’s film,” a naturalistic, understated melodrama — if that doesn’t seem like too much of an oxymoron. It’s a melodrama, because its focus is mostly domestic, as it deals with the emotional ups and downs of two women’s lives. It’s not that the film is detached from social and political concerns — quite the contrary — but these are reflected (or refracted) almost exclusively through the women’s inner, intimate feelings, the slender threads of hope they nourish amidst a general sense of constricted horizions, loneliness, and disappointment. The film is naturalistic, at the same time, because it shows nothing of the floridity and excess that we usually associate with melodrama; instead, we get the decors and surroundings of a small provincial town in Hungary, where people are free from abject poverty, but also not particularly well off. Most of the scenes are set in shabby apartments, on public transport, in various institutional settings, in the workplace, or in popular (not particularly luxurious) restaurants and cafes.
The two women are Kata (Katalin Berek), a 43-year-old woman, and Anna (GyÃ¶ngyvÃ©r Vigh), a troubled teenager. Kata is a widow who lives alone and works in a factory; Anna lives at a state institution for troubled young people, as she is unable to get along with her parents. Kata has a lover, Joska (LÃ¡szlÃ³ SzabÃ³) who is a married man with children; he professes his love for Kata, but he is unwilling to leave his wife and family for her. She accepts this more or less fatalistically, but it’s evident that she feels lonely and unfulfilled. At the start of the movie, she tells Joska that she wants to have a child by him, and that he needn’t worry, she will raise the child alone, etc.; but he absolutely refuses. She accepts this more or less fatalistically as well, though she clearly isn’t pleased.
Anna has a boyfriend, whom she wants to marry; but neither her family nor the institution in which she has been placed will give consent. She has the reputation of being something of a bad girl, always running away, or otherwise making trouble: but all we see of her, really, is vulnerability and need, and uncertainty as to what, if anything, she will ever be able to make of her life.
Kata and Anna get drawn together in the course of the film; Kata seems to regard Anna as the daughter she never had, though Anna fiercely resists being cast as the child — she is sick and tired of being dependent upon superior adults, and is looking for a friendship (or even, with this older woman, a sort of mentorship or sponsorship) that nonetheless entirely respects her autonomy. Given their disparate desires and emotional needs, the relationship between Kata and Anna, though intense, is marked by tensions, and is fairly transient. The plot of the film basically consists of Kata and Anna getting to know each other, Kata’s problems with Joska, and Kata arranging for Anna to marry her boyfriend after all. The film ends with a lengthy wedding party, in the course of which it is suggested that this marriage will not be the solution to all her problems that Anna has imagined it to be; followed by a shorter scene in which Kata adopts a baby (she looks 6 months old or so); the film ends with a freeze frame of Kata holding the baby, about to get on the bus that will take her home. So the plot comes to some sort of resolution for both protagonists, only Meszaros goes out of her way to remind us that this closure is provisional at best, and that the women have not really overcome their alienation, only transferred it to a new register. A husband and a baby represent decisive steps, or changes; but they are not final resolutions, because real-life experiences do not end (short of death), only stories do.
Adoption, then, is an affective film much more than it is a narrative one. None of the characters is loquacious; we don’t really know what they are thinking, most of the time. But we get a powerful sense of how they feel and think, nonetheless, because so much of the film is shot in close-up. The register of the face — and sometimes other parts of the body — is our main anchoring point. There are many shots and sequences that seem suffused with feelings of tiredness, longing, anticipation, and resignation; or irresolution and, conversely decision. We never see utter desperation, and only rarely do we see happiness — there is one wonderful scene in a restaurant, where the two women bond over cigarettes, cognac and a meal, laughing together as they simply ignore the men who stare at them, or politely but firmly refuse the efforts of the men to pick them up. (This is the only sequence in the entire film where we get a conventional shot/reverse shot structure; Meszaros is very aware of the gender politics of the gaze, I presume without having read Laura Mulvey, whose “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” was published the same year that this film was made),
Yet Meszaros’ use of close-ups is not isolating in the way that close-ups usually are. And this relates to how the film is naturalistic, as well as melodramatic or affective. The most famous — and most radical — use of the close-up in world cinema is probably that of Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc, where all the shots of Falconetti’s face in extreme close-up not only emphasize the emotions she feels (or perhaps, more accurately, the waves of nearly impersonal affect — passion and ecstasy — that traverse her body and her spirit), but also serve to detach her from her surroundings (which in any case are already quite minimal), and thereby from the craven and entirely temporal judgment of those who condemn her. The close-up, here, is a gateway to transcendence — it bespeaks an affirmation of the spirit, and a radical rejection of the overbearing oppressions of the here-and-now.
Meszaros’ use of the close-up is, however, entirely different. The most common sort of shot in the film — I would almost call it Meszaros’ signature as an artist — is a moving close-up: a pan or travelling shot in extreme close-up. Dreyer’s close-ups are, of course, entirely still (which is a necessary condition for their intensity); but Meszaros’ camera is perpetually restless, even as usually stays close to emphasize the characters’ emotions. So the camera will pan from one woman’s face to the other’s, in extreme closeup — rather than either placing the two faces together in a two-shot, or isolating them via separate shots. This emphasizes a kind of dual (though generally not harmonious) subjectivity. It also connects the character to her surroundings: these are entirely fragmented, but nonetheless basic to the composition of the shots, since space is being emphasized by movement, along with the fixity of facial expression. A frequent variant of this sort of shot is one in which the faces are captured in shallow focus, while there are other objects or people, blurry and out of focus, coming in between the camera and the faces that it is contemplating with clarity. Yet another variant is where the close-up doesn’t rest exclusively on the face, but moves over different parts of the woman’s body. This happens, for instance, in a scene early in the film, where Kata sees a (male) doctor in order to make sure she is healthy enough at age 43 to have a baby. Her body (together with the hands of the doctor palpating it) seems to be extrmely fragmented, broken into separate parts — breast, arm, back — except that the camera’s movement, grasping all these separate parts without a cut, suggests rather a kind of tour of the body at very close range, something that feels disconcertingly intimate. (I’m reminded of a legendary film that I have read about but never actually seen, Yoko Ono’s Fly).
I think that Meszaros’ style emphasizes her protagonists’ closeness to one another, together with their experience of their social environment — which does not altogether determine them, since their alienation from it is precisely what gives them a sort of limited, but nonetheless actual degree of freedom — but which does limit or constrain them severely, and which is the major component of their experience, however much they would like to escape it. (Meszaros’ film is in this sense radically anti-escapist; it insists on the real experience of constraint, of unfreedom, of non-autonomy, as a necessary background to any autonomous decision or action). Rather than focus on massive social determinations, Meszaros is attentive to a whole series of micro-determinations. For all that Adoption is a kind of “domestic” drama, it emphasizes at every step the role of social institutions, from the institutions of Medicine and the Factory (both of which have their own hierarchies of command, relation, and appeal) ot the social institutions of marriage and the family (which comes up in two particularly excruciating scenes: one in which Kata visits Anna’s parents, to get their approval for Anna’s hoped-for marriage; and the other in which Joska brings Anna home to meet his wife and kids, to whom he introduces her as just his “co-worker”; while she colludes with him in keeping them totally unaware that he is having an extended affair with her) to (literal) Institutions for wayward juveniles, with their own bureaucratic structures and chains of command. But these institutional components of social life (and specifically, in Hungary of the 1970s, of socialist life) are themselves observed within the film exclusively on the micro-level, in terms of the particular experiences the protagonists have with negotiating them, the particular steps they are always compelled to take. For Meszaros it’s not a question of the global structures of socialist authority, so much as of the way this authority mobilizes, engages, demands, and produces affect.
The moving close-up is also a way of expressing intimacy; Meszaros is not just concerned with the affects within the individual, but also, and perhaps above all, with the flow of affect between individuals. Adoption is a film about transpersonal affect. It narrates, not so much a single plot, as the multiple, and subtle, shifts of affection, attention, and concern between Kata and Anna — and to a lesser extent between these two women and their men. You could call it a balance of passion, in contrast to the more commonly discerned balance of power in intimate and social relationships. Part of the uniqueness of Meszaros’ approach here is precisely that she makes us think and feel in terms of passion rather than power. Though Joska, in particular, is something of a jerk, Kata never questions her love for him, and the film doesn’t allow us to question it either. The film certainly casts a critical eye on patriarchal institutions, and demonstrates their ubiquity in the society in which Meszaros lives, and in which the film is taking place; and the film strongly suggests the importance of relationships among heterosexual women, as opposed to their relationships with men. But there is none here of the denunciation of male power per se that we find in Western feminist writing, theory, and art of the 1970s (and beyond). Instead, Meszaros displaces our concerns away from power relations altogether, and onto trickier, but no less important, terrain. She doesn’t ignore power so much as… she renders it less important than we often think, less important than other sorts of relationships, other affective dimensions. This might be thought of as the sole “utopian” dimension of a film that otherwise takes a grim look at things, seeing only continued, unpleasant constraints, and the necessity of trying to live on while adjusting to them.
Intimacy is hard in the best of circumstances, and Meszaros never lets us forget the dis-ease, the vague sense of discomfort, the troubling ambivalence that underlies any act of giving oneself over to intimacy, to an Other. This ambivalence also permeates Kata’s desire to be a mother, an emotion that a sterner feminism might want to question, but that Meszaros just gives us without explanation or psychological analysis, as a given of Kata’s condition. We are sometimes tempted to think of babies — of our children — as blank slates on which we can impose ourselves; but of course this is never actually the case, no matter whether we give birth to a child or adopt her. In fully inhabiting this dimension of experience, Adoption gives a different twist than is usually given to the truism that the personal is political. In exploring the politics of intimacy, and in understanding this politics in terms other than those of either power and domination, or liberation, Meszaros creates a new sort of film, one that I can only call (by another hopeless oxymoron) affective social realism.