There are film reviews that have always puzzled me. For example, Leonard Maltin writes of David Cronenberg’s The Brood: “[Samantha] Eggar eats her own afterbirth while midget clones beat grandparents and lovely young schoolteachers to death with mallets. It's a big, wide, wonderful world we live in!”
After seeing The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier), I understand exactly where Maltin was coming from. Why would anyone make a movie like The Notebook? Depravity, cruelty and nihilism are on full display, and it’s completely unnecessary (and this is coming from someone who can defend Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film).
Hungarian twins (László Gyémánt and András Gyémánt) are sent by their mother to live with their grandmother in the last days of World War II. The twins are nameless—though their grandmother, a drunk, bitter and angry woman—calls them “the bastards.” (Note: No one in this film has a proper name, which gives it a sort of fairy tale or otherworldly quality. But still.)
The twins’ father gives them a notebook in which to record every moment in their lives, and they do, deciding that they will only write the truth of their existence. That means there are many anecdotes about grandmother nearly starving them and withholding letters from their mother unless they do hard labor on her farm.
Naturally, she’s not the worst person in the story. How could she be? There’s a man in the village who beats them because they’re accused (falsely) of being thieves (though it’s only a matter of time before they turn to stealing). There’s the pretty maid in town who molests them (mostly off camera). They, in turn, blow her face off by strategically placing a piece of found ammunition in an oven she later lights. When they’re disciplined for it—beaten nearly to death—their captors are then disciplined by being shot. In the course of all this horror, the twins put themselves through ritual beatings to toughen themselves up, and they steal from corpses they find in the forest near grandma’s farm.
The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier) is based on a highly regarded novel by Agota Kristof, and I imagine the story in book form is more palatable. And even if it isn’t, there’s something about a book that leaves certain things to one’s imagination; you can make them as nasty or benign as you’d like.
But János Szász’s film falters on a fundamental level—he seems to be taking some kind of perverse pleasure in the depravity-cum-naïveté he depicts on screen, whereas the intent seems to be a lament for the inevitable march from the horrors of World War II to the oppression of Communism. It’s difficult to find the message when all the information on screen makes you want stab yourself in the eyes. (Keep that in mind when learning Mom’s fate.)
What’s the takeaway from watching a boy pluck a chicken, alive, it screeching in pain, as revenge for his grandmother eating a chicken in front of him without sharing it? As Maltin would say, “It's a big, wide, wonderful world we live in!”
THE NOTEBOOK (LE GRAND CAHIER)
Directed by János Szász
With László Gyémánt, András Gyémánt, and Piroska Molnár