Thursday, July 17, 2014
György Kovasznai may not be a familiar name (granted, his films are just about as famous as he is outside of obscure animation circles), but his work deserves to be more widely known. A Hungarian painter and filmmaker, Kovasznai used painterly techniques to illustrate life in Budapest at the time. His animated feature Habfurdo (or Foam Bath) is a masterpiece of multi-styled animation. Delightfully unique for animation is the fact that it is a romantic musical comedy, one that works incredibly well. I was first informed of its existence by an article on cartoonbrew.com. Immediately watching the film on YouTube, I found it irresistible.
The main plot concerns Zsolt, a man who is about to get married, visiting Anna, the best friend of his fiancee Klari, because he wants her to call off the wedding. The plot doesn't get much more complicated than that, save for some developments which wouldn't be out of place in musical theater drama. Several musical numbers take place, never boring because of the style, along with some zany hijinks such as Zsolt hiding from his fiancee in a diving suit. Eventually the film breaks off into interviews with various real life people on topics concerning children. In one hallucinatory sequence, Zsolt and Anna dance in various scenarios through every style conceivable.
Initially I wasn't sure how the film would fare with me because of its agitated style, yet what I found was a film which was constantly fascinating to look at, as all animated films should be. The character designs, though they stretch and morph, are always recognizable and are animated with care, even if details expand or contract. It's especially fascinating to see the changes that take place in the character designs based on their emotional state or other unknown factors. We don't so much see the characters act as we see them think. Kovasznai portrays their interior feelings externally to help us understand how they are relating to one another. That's why, for me, the first time watching the film I was able to grasp many elements of it without subtitles. Another aspect which is incredibly integral to the film's attractiveness is the music by János Másik. Pretty much every song or motif is catchy and groovy. Some of the songs are more playful in nature, others melancholy. Some, such as the one sung by the overly glamorous bride Klari, are right out of a stage musical. The music is one of the reasons it's so easy to watch Habfurdo over and over. The animation is well done too, as is the staging and lighting of the scenes. Layers of color, light, and shadow are put into different backgrounds to produce a rich, layered atmosphere. Sometimes it is evident that this was done with multiple passes in the camera.
I haven't found that much information on the production of the film, which is a shame as I would have loved to find an interview or lost article on the design aspects or the production of the music. Even though the story is simple, the topics discussed and looked at in the film were applicable to young people in Budapest (and elsewhere) at the time. Since the film was a flop at the time of its release, it faded off into obscurity. I sort of led a miniature revival of the film by playing it for friends back at school. It's immediately gripping, especially for animators, since there isn't another animated feature quite like it for its style. If you like crazy animation or even catchy musicals, definitely check this out. Habfurdo is also one of the animated films I really hope the Criterion Collection gets to releasing someday, along with some of Kovasznai's other shorts like Double Portrait (1964) and Wavelength (1971). There was a retrospective of his films in Budapest a few years ago, so I know he's not forgotten. It's high time more people in America discover his work.