The Notebook — no, not the guilty-pleasure 2004 romance, but a grim, accomplished Hungarian wartime drama from last year — feels like a cross between things you’ve seen or read before. I kept flashing on the matter-of-fact horrors in The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński (or whoever really wrote it) and the evil-twin dynamic of Tom Tryon’s thriller The Other. Actually, the source is the first book of a trilogy written by the late, lauded novelist Agota Kristof.
It’s 1944, Hungary. László and András Gyémánt play two boys known only as the Twins. (Yes, it’s that sort of fable.) When their father goes to the war, they’re dropped off by their mother (Gyöngyvér Bognár) in the countryside to stay with her mother (Piroska Molnár), whom she hasn’t spoken to in 20 years. Awkward! Even worse, Granny quickly proves why there’s no love lost. She locks the boys out of the house their first night, then inflicts a regimen of strenuous farm chores, beatings and meager bowls of soup.
That’s the first step on the boys’ march to self-improvement — or self-damnation, depending on your viewpoint. They decide they will harden themselves, preemptively, to the world’s blows. (The notebook of the title is where they jot down their progress.)
Soon they’re exchanging slaps and slugs and steeling themselves to the cruelty of the war-torn reality around them, torturing and killing insects and animals (fair warning). Perversely, the boys’ toughness endears them to their detestable grandmother; the belated bond is a strange, tender island in the movie’s flow of hardships. Another unsettling one is the protectorate relationship established between the boys and the German commandant (Ulrich Thomsen, of 1998’s great The Celebration). He spends weekends at granny’s farm, savoring that lovely Aryan ideal of the great outdoors. His interest in the boys is also Aryan, in its homoerotic drive.
Interestingly — and perhaps a comment on the ways film and TV inure us, or me, to violence — in a movie full of killing by knife, firearm, gang rape, air strike and land mine, the most disturbing moments concern the predatory sexuality two adults aim toward the boys. (One is a woman whose work for the town’s deacon camouflages a very twisted soul.)
All in all, The Notebook is brutally impressive in its acting, direction, editing. But there’s a problematic irony here. In taking us quickly and mercilessly through the twins’ stages of desensitization, the movie desensitizes us as we watch it. The brothers tilt into sociopathy so early, the movie doesn’t have a sustained arc to follow, or cumulative power at the end.
Maybe that’s the point. Maybe the movie is challenging us to maintain our moral orientation, rather than meet each new outrage with a shrug. The Notebook is as engrossing as it is unsettling. I’m glad to have seen it. I wish I could tell you, exactly, why. Maybe the fact that that bothers me is a testament to its lingering power.
The Notebook. With László and András Gyémánt and Piroska Molnár. Directed by János Szász. In Hungarian with subtitles. Rated R. 112 minutes. At the Tara.