Are you a nihilist? Trouble finding a way to bring satisfaction to a Friday night in the void of meaningless suffering that is your universe? Well, do I have the movie for you. It’s called The Notebook, and no, Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams are not involved.
There’s something bracing about a film that makes so little concession toward entertaining an audience. There’s a couple of bits of perverse sexuality in this pitch-black WWII-era Hungarian drama, but even those are part and parcel of a worldview of pitiless, Godless, man’s inhumanity to man. The two unnamed leading characters—affectless twin boys (András and László Gyémánt), natch—are left, by their mother (Gyöngyvér Bognár), with an abusive grandmother (Piroska Molnár), known by local villagers as "the witch."
Despite the mother’s best intention of keeping the boys from the mortal harm threatened by air raids, she pushes them into their own homemade brand of deadening nihilism. In order to gird themselves against horrified feelings, terrible pain, and pangs of hunger, the boys train each other to feel nothing. And so we get scenes like the one in which the brothers beat each other up in the yard, or the one in which they practice murder with small animals.
Adapted by János Szász, András Szekér, Tom Abrams from the acclaimed novel by Agota Kristof, and directed with rigorous dourness by Szász, The Notebook applies a kind of stylized dramatic “theater of cruelty” form to a feature-length tour of all manner of rural eastern European suffering during WWII. Deprivation and fear lead to both literal and psychological survival tactics among adults who model for, and invite vengeance from, the emotionally burned twins. And, yes, the adults include both a Nazi pedophile (Ulrich Thomsen) and a creepy woman who bathes with the twins and takes sexual pleasure in their company.
Even the grace notes are played for maximum upset, as when the boys attempt to help an AWOL soldier and, later, a Jewish cobbler. The friendship the boys find with a girl saddled with the nickname Harelip (Orsolya Tóth) and even the presumptively unassailable bond between the twins wind up being untrustworthy anchors. The Notebook is about being set adrift in the universe, with nothing—no home, no person, no moral law—to cling to or, perhaps, even worth clinging to. In other words, happy Friday, moviegoers.
Is The Notebook art? Yes. But will anyone be a better person after sitting through it, this endurance test of a film? Before their father sees his sons off, he hands them a notebook and instructs, "I want to know everything. Don't leave a thing out." Famous last words, as they say. No matter how truthful The Notebook may be, audiences may regret this hopeless tour of human horrors.