The bleak apartment building in Gyorgy Palfi’s “Free Fall” boasts seven floors, but not quite seven stories. In the opening scene, an unhappy Hungarian woman steps off the roof and plunges past them, but remarkably doesn’t die when she hits the pavement. Over the course of the next 80 minutes, as she limps her way back upstairs, Palfi takes us into each of her neighbors’ apartments, revealing strange, darkly comedic and inevitably surreal glimpses into modern life — vignettes that defy interpretation and don’t necessarily appear to connect, yet offer undeniably wicked fun for festival and edge-seeking arthouse audiences.
As satirists go, Palfi seems to share at least some DNA with “The Far Side” creator Gary Larson, whose cartoon view of lumpy women in flowered housedresses and horn-rimmed glasses finds its cinematic equivalent here — not so much in wardrobe as in the absurd, vaguely sadistic sensibility by which the director manipulates such characters for his own amusement.
There is the gynecologist’s office, where a patient braces herself for a sort of reverse-childbirth procedure; the dinner party, at which a wealthy socialite presents his young (and fully naked) new fiancee to dozens of unfazed guests; and the dysfunctional household where only the family’s young son can see the metaphorical elephant in the room (a giant bull, really, though the idea is the same).
For those sufficiently familiar with Hungarian culture, no doubt the seven intermingled threads offer a more coherent commentary on social values in free fall, starting with the long-suffering housewife (Piroska Molnar) who hurtles herself from the roof at the outset. Has this unhappy woman merely had enough of living with her cranky old husband (Miklos Bened), or does her hopelessness extend to where she fits into the community of nutjobs who share her building?
Though Palfi’s film is structured to follow her climb, breaking off at each landing to examine the lives behind each closed door, there’s little to suggest that the various residents have anything to do with one another — unlike more ingeniously interconnected pics like “Delicatessen,” where the characters actually relate. Instead, each apartment seems to exist in a different generic dimension, from situational comedy (complete with laugh track) to sci-fi.
Still, Palfi insists that the project — commissioned for the Jeonju Film Festival, which traditionally invites three helmers to contribute episodes to a single feature — should not be viewed as a collection of shorts, and he goes out of his way to hide details from seemingly self-contained episodes in the background of other scenes. “If you feel strong enough, open your eyes,” Palfi advised audiences at Karlovy Vary, quoting a hypocritical spiritual coach who reprimands his most promising student for levitating during class.
Only one of the tales could be extracted and fully expected to work on its own: A neat freak comes home and steps directly into the shower before entering his hermetically sealed apartment. He greets his wife; they share a conscientiously healthy meal before engaging in ridiculously safe sex, involving not just condoms, but also surgical gloves and yards upon yards of plastic wrap so their epidermis is never directly exposed. As it turns out, even such extreme precautions prove insufficient to keep the contagions at bay.
This blisteringly entertaining episode, which veers from amusing to full-blown grotesque, as the boundary-obliterating “Taxidermia” director is wont to do, is perhaps the only chapter that audiences can fully digest without requiring a road map. Linked by loud, irreverent electric-guitar bursts from musical collaborator Amon Tobin, the other vignettes serve up punchlines of their own, but wouldn’t necessarily stand alone — assuming they make sense even in context, which isn’t always the case.
Still, it’s thrilling to see a director in such clear command of the cinematic medium operating in such a playfully stylized way. And though the individual episodes don’t appear to be making an especially profound statement, the project calls for an enormous ensemble and a wide variety of sets (no two apartments look alike), which pack a damning collective attack on Palfi’s countrymen — one that gives Magyar film buffs reason to be proud, even as it’s sure to exasperate the local tourism board.