Never afraid to take on a challenge, Magyar helmer Kornel Mundruczo delivers a contempo, Budapest-set update of Mary Shelley’s gothic novel in “Tender Son — The Frankenstein Project.” But this adaptation, in which the monster is replaced by a listless 17-year-old who finds his uncaring parents again before turning murderous, is not exactly a Promethean achievement, as Mundruczo (“Delta,” “Johanna”) struggles to breathe life into his patchwork of disparate elements. Cannes competish berth will guarantee further fest exposure and some sales, but pic will finally end up in the noble-failure column of the helmer’s eclectic filmography.
On a wintry day, morose teenager Rudi (Rudolf Frecska) turns up at the crumbling, scaffolded apartment building where his mother (vet actress Lili Monori), who has not seen him for years, is the only permanent tenant left. But Rudi seems in no hurry to talk to her.
A film director and acquaintance of the mother (played by Mundruczo) is holding casting sessions in the building, and the adolescent seems more drawn to the filmmaker. He finally ends up in front of the camera, where he acts out a love scene with a girl (Diana Magdolna Kiss), but when asked to play someone who is loved, his (unexplained) gut reaction is to turn aggressive. The incident that follows is the first of several violent deaths caused by the youth, who seems to be entirely without a moral compass.
Though pic follows the novel’s plot mechanics quite closely, Mundruczo seems to have a muddled understanding of the central protag’s dilemma and tragedy. The genius of Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” inspired by the myth of Prometheus, was that it inverted what Joseph Campbell has described as the “monomyth,” in which a human protag must master a supernatural world before returning home victorious; in Shelley’s version, a supernatural (though man-made) creature encounters the world of man, which seems strange and unnatural to him, provoking violent reactions due to his incomprehension.
Mundruczo and regular co-scripter Yvette Biro (“Delta,” “Johanna”) have completely neutered Shelley’s clever notion of a hero incompatible with his surroundings by replacing the monster with a flesh-and-blood human with no backstory, turning him into a supposed equal rather than a misunderstood outcast.
Without a clear understanding of his psychology or past (How was he treated in the orphanage? How does he feel about his parents’ absence for most of his life?), his random killing spree seems simply incomprehensible and vile.
An out-of-nowhere marriage proposal and a scene involving lipstick, the latter faintly echoing a scene in the 1931 “Frankenstein” with the monster and the little girl at the lake, seem to hint at Rudi’s humanity, though as in “Delta,” the male protags remain hard to fathom throughout. Both Frecska and Mundruczo offer little beyond their carefully studied scowls.
Though the film lacks the narrative glue provided by character evolution, many of the individual sequences are strong, including the opening and closing scenes set in the filmmaker’s car. His character, an interesting update of Dr. Frankenstein, looks to resuscitate human emotions from his incompetent non-pro actors in one the film’s few comic moments.
The project hugely benefits from all-around excellent craft contributions. Matyas Erdely’s widescreen compositions often place the characters in the center (even when the screenplay does not), while production designer Marton Agh’s dilapidated Budapest apartment building is marvelously conceived and filmed with a real feel for spatial relations. Score seems aimless but sound design is strong; a spinning washing machine, of all things, ratchets up the tension in several scenes.
Though not credited onscreen, Mundruczo already explored this story in a 2007 play that also starred Frecska.