Young and beautiful Mona (Orsolya Török-Illyés), scraping a scant living for herself and her little daughter, is duped into accompanying her father as he travels from Transylvania to Germany for life-saving surgery. Leaving her daughter with a reluctant aunt, Mona sets off on a journey that will take her top the shadowy world of sexual slavery, to Bibliothèque Pascal – a debauched brothel where prostitutes are forced to act the parts of literary characters; characters who don't always survive past the end of the dialogue – a world where anyone from the most respected to the most depraved can fulfill their fantasy, and where fairytales can come true if you can afford the price.
The plethora of excesses on show in Szabolcs Hajdu’s Bibliothèque Pascal may prove too daunting for some, given the handful of walkouts and chorus of 'WTFs?" in the foyer post-MIFF screening.
But only the most easily-offended of modern moviegoers won’t draw some pleasure from the sheer number of reverential visual nods Hajdu employs in his striking film – take any 20 minutes and the well-versed festival goer will note the influence of Fellini, Gilliam, Kusturica, Lynch, Makavejev, Cronenberg, Kubrick and Russell. Add to this heady mix some traditional street theatre, Freudian dream analysis and S&M-tinged references to literary giants such as George Bernard Shaw, Shakespeare and Carlo Collodi"¦ well, you can sense this is no Adam Sandler vehicle.
Hajdu’s film begins in the harshest of realities – a mother is seeking government assistance to regain custody of her eight-year-old daughter. We first meet the softly-spoken Mona (Orsolya Török-Illyés) in the offices of a Child Welfare official, who asks to better understand how she came to be separated from her daughter. Mona begins to relate a tale, utterly fantastic in its scope, of how she met her daughter’s father Viorel (Andi Vasluianu), a violent homophobe who can project his dreams (allowing for the first of the film’s mesmerising fantasy sequences); of a chance meeting with her own father Gigi Paparu (Razvan Vasilescu) that results in Mona leaving her daughter Viorica (Lujza Hajdu) with Aunt Rodica (Oana Pellea), a carnival fortune-teller who exploits the child’s inherited ability to make her sleeping fantasies real.
Mona, herself the victim of her father’s betrayal, is now enslaved in a UK dungeon-brothel (the 'Bibliotheque Pascal’ of the title), fed heroin by the master of ceremonies Pascal (Shamgar Amram) and forced to act out violent sexual fantasies for the depraved upper class of London. The staging of the scenes of degradation and abuse behind the underground doors of the sex-club are truly nightmarish; Hajdu asks a great deal of his cast, especially Török-Illyés, who endures awful moments (including, but not limited to, being raped whilst vacuum-sealed in a latex bodybag). The means by which Mona and her fellow captives find redemption is one of pure imagination, emphasising the fairytale/fantasy elements of Mona’s recollections and providing the audience with a light-hearted means by which to purge themselves of the horrors that had preceded.
Though Hajdu and his cinematographer Andras Nagy indulge in lush colours and assured camera tricks to paint a vivid cinematic picture of Mona’s fantasy world, it won’t be enough for some. Following the film’s recent screening at the Berlinale, some reviewers unleashed their harshest diatribes in years on the film and its makers (Neil Young, writing for trade paper The Hollywood Reporter, called it 'toxic cinetrash" and 'howlingly pretentious, fatuously offensive nonsense").
Bibliothèque Pascal is a bracing, shocking, confusing journey at times, that much is true. But it is also a moving, involving story, its harsher elements balanced by always seeming to have its heart in the right place. It is easy to lose sight of that amidst the human ugliness that Hajdu frames so well, but the film never lost focus of the hope and purpose in Mona’s journey. For me, anyway"¦