In Katalin Moldovai’s feature debut, Without Air, a beloved literature teacher stands to lose her job after she recommends Agnieszka Holland’s gay romance Total Eclipse (1995) to her class.
Keep up with the best socially progressive hidden gems of international cinema with The Seventh Row Newsletter. The newsletter features exclusive content and recommendations you won’t find on the website.
In Katalin Moldovai’s feature debut, Without Air, a beloved literature teacher, Ana (Ágnes Krasznahorkai), stands to lose her job after she recommends Agnieszka Holland’s Total Eclipse (1995) — a film about nineteenth-century poets Rimbaud (Leonardo Dicaprio) and Verlaine (David Thewlis) and their love affair — to her class. At the beginning of Without Air, Moldovai favours smooth tracking shots of Ana as she enters the school and goes about her well-oiled routine. She’s comfortable in her life and work. She’s an institution within the institution. However, as soon as she recommends the film, her path is no longer clear. Her journey out of the classroom is blocked by a comically large stuffed bear being carried down the hallway.
Discover more Agnieszka Holland films, including our interviews with her and podcasts on them.
More Agnieszka Holland
When one of her most promising but shy students gets interrupted by his conservative father while watching Total Eclipse at home, a witch hunt ensues against Ana. The parent claims she has been pushing the “homosexual lifestyle” on his son. Initially, Ana has essential allies, including the school’s principal (Tünde Skovrán), who knows what a valuable teacher Ana is. But there are powers-at-be to satisfy who want, at minimum, a slap on the wrist. However, Ana’s principles prevent her from accepting the lightest punishment she could receive. Her appeal of their decision launches an investigation that quickly spirals out of control.
Katalin Moldovai finds visual metaphors for Ana’s powerlessness
Moldovai finds multiple visual metaphors for Ana’s powerlessness. From here, the shooting strategy gets more handheld and less clean as Ana finds herself in a rapidly exacerbating situation. Moldovai increasingly favours wide shots that demonstrate the sheer physical size of the institutions Ana is up against and the smallness of Ana, as an individual, against these structures. A critical meeting with a panel happens in a gigantic auditorium. Ana is less and less allowed to take centre frame in scenes with people who have authority over her.
Ultimately, Without Air is about the extreme power teachers can wield in the classroom when their dictates align with the school’s more fascistic leanings and the utter powerlessness of teachers who want to encourage independent thinking.
There’s a harrowing scene where we get entry into the class of the teacher most hell-bent on ending Ana’s career. She operates the room like a fiefdom, instructing her students to stand when she enters. She retaliates against students who supported Ana by giving them setting impossible tasks that will earn them a failing grade. Inside this room, she has all the power. She can find excuses to fail anyone who falls out of line. Compare this to an early scene in the film when we see Ana’s classroom, a place where she asks people to close their eyes, become calm, and explore their imaginations. It’s a safe space for thinking.
Total Eclipse is a strange miracle of a film
It is worth mentioning that Total Eclipse is a strange miracle of a film. Fresh off the success of The Secret Garden (1993), Agnieszka Holland decided to direct this film of Christopher Hampton’s play about a toxic gay romance told from a surprisingly modern perspective. The film starred David Thewlis, fresh from Naked (1993) fame, and Leonardo DiCaprio, just on the cusp of Romeo + Juliet and Titanic.
The film is almost impossible to find in North America, perhaps in no small part due to the massive gay panic DiCaprio had while making it (and after), which has led him to do his very best to suppress all mentions of it in the press. In Toronto, there’s one DVD for rent at Bay St. Video. I don’t know if the film is more widely available in Eastern Europe, but none of the officials involved in the proceedings in Without Air had seen the movie. People in love with censorship never bother to engage with the texts that most offend them.
Listen to our podcast on Mike Leigh’s Naked.
Related reading/listening to Katalin Moldovai’s Without Air
Listen to our Agnieszka Holland podcasts. We compare Holland’s The Secret Garden (1993) to the 2020 adaptation. Listen to the episode on three major works from Holland’s career: Washington Square, Charlatan, and Europa, Europa. Listen to our masterclass with Agnieszka Holland.
More from TIFF 2023: Read all of our TIFF 2023 coverage.