A Year in Shorts Day 173: "Ouverture"
Some films are just plain weird folks. No one wants to talk about it, but it’s true. Sometimes there’s a film which no amount of discussion can ever properly explain. Oh sure, you can try. But at best you’ll just come across looking foolish, and at worst you’ll find yourself killing the magic. There are some films out there which are better left to their own devices, not to be explored, but to be enjoyed. Such films are meant to be experienced more than understood. And in the case of a film like Ouverture, that experience can be bizarrely rewarding.
Ouverture (or Overture or Nyitány, depending on who you ask and what language you speak; I choose to use Ouverture because I believe the translated title is meant to be a pun on the French word for egg) is a 1965 Hungarian short directed by Janos Vadasz. Put plainly, it's a documentary short about the development of a chicken within its egg all the way up to its hatching, compressed to just under nine minutes thanks to the magic of time lapse photography. Rather unusually for a documentary, there's no narration of any kind, with the soundtrack instead being taken up by Beethoven's Overture to Egmont. Whether or not that pun was intentional, I have no idea. On paper it might not sound like much of a film, but watching it unfold reveals it to be a rather strange and beautiful motion picture.
While Ouverture is certainly not the most educational of documentaries, I think it's fairly clear that education was not really Vadasz's primary concern. No, Ouverture is clearly an artistic statement of some kind, even though I'm not exactly sure what that statement is. Still, we can always try to parse it out. If you think about it, Vadasz has boiled down the nature documentary to its bare essence- images of animal life combined with stirring music. (That's ultimately why we all love Planet Earth, isn't it?) The reasoning behind the music choice is unknown to me (the film's Wikipedia article has one interpretation, but with no citation I can't say I trust it), but it's perfect nevertheless. The score elevates the imagery from something interesting to something breathtaking, functioning much in the same way as a segment of Fantasia does. Except instead of animation it's... you know... a chicken developing.
Now, why exactly Vadasz decided to focus on a chicken in an egg is a question lost to history, and perhaps one better left unanswered. Sometimes it's best to let a film stand on its own, and maybe this is one of those times. Ouverture is Vadasz's sole directorial credit, and one of his few film credits overall. (He seemed to primarily be hired for macro photography for other Hungarian documentary shorts.) With seemingly no interviews conducted before his death, Ouverture is left to speak for itself. What exactly it says is, I suppose, up to the person who's listening.
Still, it must have struck a chord with a lot of people. In addition to its Oscar nomination (which it lost to To Be Alive!), Ouverture also managed to snag the Short Film Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, placing it in the came company as previous Year in Shorts entries The Red Balloon and An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Admittedly, Ouverture hasn't left the same pop cultural impact as those shorts, but I suppose its appeal is more niche. But if any biology teachers are reading this, I have a suggestion for a film to screen next time you want to get the kids to shut up for ten minutes.
Ouverture is another fairly obscure short for us at The Great Oscar Baiter, and once again I find myself being in the strange position of potentially writing the most substantial piece of criticism about a film available on the Internet. (Well, "substantial" being debatable. Along with "criticism.") So with that tremendous amount of pressure on my shoulders, allow me to say this- Ouverture is a bizarre, unique and breathtaking masterpiece, and is without a doubt one of the best documentary shorts I've ever seen. (And I've seen more than the average person, I'd suspect.) If you haven't seen it, please do. And then find someone else to show it to, provided they have a strong stomach. The legacy of Janos Vadasz is, in the grand scheme of things, a fairly small one. But as anyone who's seen Ouverture can attest to, it's a damn impressive one as well.
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