Frost ★★★

Thrilled to attend this event, even though the film didn't particularly do it for me. It was organised by the London-based A Nos Amours "collective" (director Joanna Hogg and dance filmmaker Adam Roberts) whose objective is to screen rare/obscure art films from original prints. Overhearing a conversation in the auditorium, simply obtaining a copy of Frost was a feat in itself: Kelemen apparently owns the only two existing 16mm copies of the film, one a work print which he personally takes to festivals, the other the subtitled version that we were given. To screen the film at the ICA, all parties had to be insured to the eye teeth lest the print catch fire in the projector. The projectionist had to supervise a test screening during which he had to document any and all glitches on the print. He then had to run each problem past the insurers and Kelemen – Kelemen would then advise on which issues he wants fixed and which issues he wanted left alone (apparently he specifically asked that a burnt-out frame be kept in the film).

The ICA also had to re-commission their 16mm projector which, apparently, had been removed from the projection booth to make way for the DCP machine. The film itself is so dark, the projector needed to be moved closer to the screen, so it sat at the back of the theatre. The audience were advised to sit under the light pool, as the low lights from the fire exist/steps would make the on-screen blacks appear less rich. There was something kinda magical/Lumière-esque about having the projector in the room, particularly the purr of the reels spinning. Anyone know if this is an exceptional circumstance or is the protocol for every time a print is screened over a DCP?

On to the film. Famously a Tarr acolyte and collaborator (he shot The Turin Horse and The Man From London), Kelemen claims that the sole abiding interest shared between the two men is depicting time. Though Kelemen is prone to the mesmeric longeur, Frost feels more of a piece with '80s Angelopoulos, particularly Landscape In The Mist (though without the political edge). There's also hints of the Cinéma du look in the heavy, tableux-like stylisation of certain shots and the use of synthetic coloured lights. A young, near-catatonic, Bressionian boy who appears entirely numbed to any emotional stimuli is spirited away by mother when she's drunkenly assaulted by the boy's father. They hit the road with no destination in mind, the mother having to do what she can to keep the pair alive. There's suffering a-plenty, as they trudge across harsh (yet handily picturesque) landscapes, somehow shifting from vast ice planes to shimmering cornfields between shots.

My problem with the film is that Keleman nearly always favours the cacophonous, hypnotic dirge over the humane truth: the characters are loping rag-dolls trapped inside the frame. There's never the sense that we're witnessing a natural epiphany that Keleman just happened to be photographing. I had the same problem with The Man From London – the ridiculous opening take felt like the characters had to wait (patiently!) until they were in shot before they could execute their foul deeds. Human reactions are muted for the purposes of cinema. The mother and son are lost in the fog, but their lacklustre cries to one other are such that they have lost a primal survival instinct. That's not so say that there aren't certain shots and movements that are worthwhile in and of themselves, but most of these set pieces would have been good if placed in any film.

Kelemen's dim view of humanity verges on the parodic, and even occasionally offensive. In the world of Frost, mothers and children are virtuous, saintly, kicking against the pricks. Men and lesbians are evil, wanting nothing more than instant, single-minded satiation for their ravenous sexual appetites. The boy is also constantly linked to the image of fire – he's asked to light cigarettes and candles and even harbours a few pyromaniac tendencies. He keeps matches in the coat of his omnipresent teddy bear. This notion of youth as the keeper of the pure flame, the only source of light in a society that's lurching into darkness, never takes on a particularly sophisticated or profound dimension. It feeds back to Kelemen's straight-jacketed visual mode, where the frame is so minutely orchestrated as to seem unnatural. Here, the metaphor is forced.

Ironically for a guy known for his visuals, it's the sound design that impresses the most here. Kelemen's music selections are straight-up batshit. The best scene (and it is kinda incredible, like a cross between Lavant at the end of Beau Travail and the Adjani wig-out in Possession) sees the mother doing her best hi-NRG banshee routine to some early '90s Euro house. Great use of ECM-style classical, especially on a merry-go-round scene that becomes as heady and intoxicating as the one in Epstein’s Cœur fidèle. Diegetic music also used to stirring effect, like when you can hear neighbours listening to oom-pah music or the chronic, crooned lounge covers of American pop hits that play in bars and clubs. It's a very fuggy film, and the muffled music coming from behind walls or though defective speakers connects to the way Kelemen has the drama play out though sheets of fog and dust.

Beyond "life is tough, people are bad", I got no real impression that Frost was about anything. In his intro to the film, Jonathan Romney analysed contemporary notions of "slow cinema", suggesting that the term is perhaps moribund. It's not about pace, it's about duration, about time passing. These films are not slow (in the pejorative sense), it's more that they place their focus on more superficial actions and events, they offer time for rumination. Frost spends a lot of time zapping banal moments with the transcendental hard-stare, and while it often locates a piercing beauty in the quotidian horrors of rural German, it more seldom locates a beautiful truth.