What begins as a story of mystery evolves into a suspenseful psychological drama in the Hungarian telefilm Demimonde.
It’s been a few years since stateside Euro TV fans have been treated to a program from Hungary, so we’re due. Arriving tomorrow is Demimonde (Félvilág), a period drama inspired by a true story.
Set in 1914, the telefilm follows the complex relationship between three women: Elza Mágnás (Patricia Kovács, When Shall We Kiss), a well-known courtesan; Rózsi Kóbori (Dorka Gryllus, Tatort), Elza’s housekeeper; and Kató Szebeni (Laura Döbrösi, Golden Life), the new maid in the Mágnás household.
It opens with a large wicker hamper floating down the Danube River in the foggy grayness of Budapest. After a passerby pulls it ashore and finds the body of a dead woman inside, the State Police bang on the door of a woman’s apartment.
Four days earlier, young Kató arrives at the apartment seeking work. But without a letter of recommendation, Rózsi, a seemingly devout Catholic, won’t hire her, sending her back into the freezing cold streets. God often works in mysterious ways, so perhaps this explains why, after Rózsi responds to Kató’s plea with “The Lord shall provide,” she has a crisis of conscience or remembers the concept of charity. Either way, she has a change of heart and mind and brings Kató on.
Meanwhile, in the dining room, Elza is hosting a dinner party with three male guests, each of whom could be part of a film starring Elza if she can get it bankrolled. That she is the kept woman of a “world famous furniture tycoon” is convenient; however, she could lose more than money, jewels, and furs if he ever found out that the poet amongst her guests, a man ten years her junior, is also her no-tell lover.
What everyone seems to know is Elza’s history as a prostitute at a brothel, including the wealthy, highbrow women who blackball her from their social events. Kató, too, learns about the Lady’s former life, and is certain that she does not want to follow in Elza’s footsteps. She also finds out that Rózsi and Elza had been friends before they transitioned to their current roles as mistress of the house and servant.
Then stuff hits the fan in the Mágnás household. Secrets are revealed, the past unravels, and betrayals cause more than bad feelings — they lead to lives being forever changed, to tragic deaths… and to the police banging on the door…
Demimonde, which had its world premiere on the film festival circuit, has won numerous awards, including for director Attila Szász, writer Norbert Köbli, cinematographer András Nagy, and its producers and cast members.
The industry accolades are deserved, as the film is compelling from several perspectives — amongst them the nature of the characters, the dynamics of the codependent relationships, the bleakness that is pervasive in the visuals and the tone, and the brilliant performances of the three leads.
Award winners Patricia Kovács and Dorka Gryllus are like forces of nature in their portrayals of Elza and Rózsi — one a cool, calculating femme fatale who “make[s] everyone crazy”; the other a plain but passionate soul whose desires go unmet. Laura Döbrösi, too, delivers a fine performance, with a demure, innocent look that belies Kató’s strength of character and moral fiber.
That Kató’s life comes full circle leaves a question mark hanging in the air — another mystery for another movie, perhaps. That the men in the film are secondary characters who nonetheless wield power over the women and are regarded by them as saviors of one sort or another — well, like it or not, this hasn’t changed much, in Hungary or elsewhere, in the century since the time the story takes place.
The film costars awards winner János Kulka (The Exam) as business tycoon Max Schmidt, Péter Sándor (When Shall We Kiss) as poet Gergely Sóvágó, and Irén Bordán (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) as Cili mama, the madam of the brothel.
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