There’s no better cinematic praise than to be evocative of Béla Tarr’s tour de force Werckmeister Harmonies. And The Temptation of St. Tony is just that. Veiko Õunpuu has weaved an existential rumination on Eastern European temporality, where work is waiting and waiting is work, and a visually stunning critique of the exacerbation of difference that post-communist times have to offer. A nouveau riche class fascinated by its newly imported sense of sophistication and superiority is so in love with itself that getting a glimpse of the lower classes is as unbearable as staring at Medusa right in the eye.
The tale of a mid-level manager reassessing his reason for being, The Temptation of St. Tony takes turns wowing through its aesthetic (crisp black –and-white imagery that would be all the rage at its neo-bourgeoisie’s dinner parties), moody camerawork that takes its time, and fragmented dialogue (“I’ve wasted my best years on you”). This is the kind of film in which a stranger stops the main character in the street only to recite William Blake and light a cigarette. There are moments that belong in an Eric Rohmer and a Luis Buñuel dinner scene simultaneously, as when a conversation over wine about psychotherapy gives way to one about American swinging (not the dance, but the wife-swapping kind).
The narrative, set to an astounding soundtrack, is not always intelligible, but always beguiling. There is a trace of the same kind of desolation, a post-traumatic barrenness, that we see in Ulrich Seidl’s Import/Export, a film that starts with a motorcycle trying to take off but not quite making it. No one is going anywhere in The Temptation of St. Tony either. Unless it’s for never coming back.
But it is with echoes of Eyes Wide Shut that this surreal fable of excess and nothingness culminates. It is a scene set at a 1930s-style club for affluent hedonists—a palace in ruins where rich men are served by women wearing very little and an anachronistic female rocker sings on a stage that seems otherwise tailored for old, singing prostitutes who still got it. There is little to recognize or follow, except a foreboding sense of creepy surprise that looms off the frame somewhere—the kind of about-to-be-awakened (or materialized) perversity that a sole Mercedes Benz driving through detritus, literal and not, seems to herald.