|'Strickland is an expert at suggesting anything your mind wishes to see'|
The seeds for the unparalleled otherworldly foundations of Peter Strickland's oeuvre to date can be clearly seen in Katalin Varga, the writer/director's first feature. Whilst the narrative of this story may be more defined than that of Strickland's later films - Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke Of Burgundy - there pervades an atmosphere which suggests that things may not quite be as they seem.
Strickland is an expert at suggesting anything your mind wishes to see. His films can be parables, peeks into alternative universes, dystopias, utopias, or all in the mind of their protagonist. They are so open ended that they could confound, but embrace them and their truly unique way of glimpsing narrative and you can be rewarded with a 'choose your own adventure' of delights.
The key scene here takes place in a boat, as Katalin (Hilda Péter) recounts the tale of her rape to two observers. As she goes into graphic detail about what happened, she begins to tell of the aftermath, of the animals in the forest bringing wood and moss and leaves to cover her and keep her warm through the night. As the story continues, the boat spins, apparently directionless, Katalin and her narrative spooling through time. Her description of events seems unlikely to have taken place but then, who knows? Strickland's camera suggests that there is something in the woods, the obvious reading of which is fear from Katalin of what has gone before, but the dual suggestion that it could be something else is Strickland to a 't'.
The rest of the film, shot on grainy 16mm, ploughs a straighter furrow than the director's other movies. Katalin is your prototypical avenging angel, on a modest hunt for two people; one who facilitated her rape and the other who committed the crime. Strickland tells the story with little genre embellishment. Katalin is on a moral crusade, not the type which might find its way into a ninety-minute Horror retelling. Whilst the core of the film is concerned with how the crime can be reconciled, it is noticeable that the narrative includes elements of generosity as well. Katalin is helped by strangers along the way, not to mention her supposed interaction with the forest-dwellers.
Whilst those who are not fans of Berberian or Burgundy may point to the lack of definition come the close of those two films, it is exactly that definition which hurts Katalin Varga. Strickland wraps up his narrative fairly neatly, Katalin's actions coming full circle, as the never-ending violence of men shows itself once again. Given that we conclude with all of the main surviving characters in the mysterious forest, perhaps a less definitive outcome would have been remembered as more 'Strickland-esque'.