Truth is stodgier than fiction in Szabolcs Hajdu’s visually impressive “Bibliotheque Pascal,” a dark sex-trafficking fairy tale from Central Europe. The talented writer-helmer imbues a crude and ugly business with a surrealistic beauty as he transforms the disturbing memories of a Hungarian-Romanian femme sold into the sex trade into stories and tableaux with Terry Gilliamesque touches. The pic, which won the top gong at the Hungarian Film Week and also unspools in Berlin’s Forum section, is tailor-made for fests; but the story’s semi-Freudian acrobatics won’t wash with mainstream auds.
Hajdu, who came to the fore with the intricate and riveting sports drama “White Palms,” here ups the ante in terms of narrative complexity, mixing reality and fairy-tale elements in an attempt to visualize the inaccessible memories of woman sold into a Blighty brothel.
When the pic opens, half-Romanian, half-Hungarian Mona Paparu (Orsolya Torok-Illyes) finds herself in a Romanian Child Protection Agency office after a long absence abroad. Her daughter, Viorica (Lujza Hajdu), has been taken away from her guardian, aunt Rodica (Oana Pellea).
The explanation for Mona’s absence and the events that led to Rodica’s bizarre behavior are shown in one long flashback. This grows increasingly fantastical as Mona is caught up in the unsavory business of handsome criminal Viorel (Andi Vasluianu) and, later, her own father (Razvan Vasilescu).
The first CGI-rendered dream sequence, some 20 minutes in, makes it clear that what we are watching is probably not to be confused with the truth, though it seems likely that Mona’s version of events is simply her way of talking about memories that are too painful to confront directly. Despite this narrative ambiguity, perfs from the international cast, led by the helmer’s wife and daughter as Mona and Viorica always remain emotionally authentic.
Mona’s final destination abroad was Liverpool, where she was put to work in the titular Bibliotheque Pascal brothel. This was a high-end affair for the wildest (often S&M-related) dreams of the rich, with theme rooms offering role-playing games inspired by famous novels such as “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “The Adventures of Pinocchio” and “Lolita.”
Pascal’s oily owner (Shamgar Amram) sets the femme workers’ final destination as the dreaded Desdemona Room, and anyone who’s paid attention during English in high school will shudder at the prospect of the sexual perversion on offer there.
For auds along for the ride, the pic’s dramatic payoff comes in a beautifully realized dream sequence that involves aunt Rodica and little Viorica, though Hajdu has trouble integrating it into his slightly awkward, reality-based bookends at the Child Protection Agency. A better director than screenwriter, Hajdu has visual ideas to spare but does at times seem too enamored of his own contraption, especially in the latter sections.
Ace lenser Andras Nagy, who took d.p. honors at the Hungarian Film Week, uses tracking and crane shots to further expand the pic’s universe and reinforce its quietly observant style. Other tech contributions are equally strong, with production design for the titular den of vice as a deceptively sleek gentlemen’s club especially impressive.