All movies try to sell us hope somewhere along the line, so a film as insistently bleak as “The Notebook” can come as a shock. An elegantly made, almost unbearably depressing tale of WWII-era deprivation and survival, it’s about twin boys who are sent to the Hungarian backcountry in the waning days of the conflict. This setting becomes a sort of existential petri dish: What would two empty vessels be filled with if they were dropped into a cauldron of selfishness and cruelty?
There’s a lot to be said for stories that acknowledge the terrible truths we spend our days ignoring — through sentimentality on one hand, easy cynicism on the other — and “The Notebook” is admirably blunt in its depiction of the worst that people can do to one another. Yet bluntness has its costs. Adapted by director and co-writer János Szász from a celebrated 1986 novel by Agota Kristof — the first in a trilogy — the film’s parade of horrors can’t help shading into mere downer drama over the long haul.
Lászlo and András Gyémánt play the boys — Claude and Lucas in the novel, but unnamed here — with the watchful, vaguely sinister stillness of photographer Diane Arbus’s famous twins. (The grown-ups in the movie approach these children with assurance, then shrink in uncertainty.) The first image in “The Notebook” is of the two sleeping cheek by jowl, as if in the womb. Then their father (Ulrich Matthes) returns from the front — briefly; the war’s going badly — and their mother (Gyöngyvér Bognár) whisks them out of the city to the farm of the boys’ grandmother (Piroska Molnár). The father gives them an empty notebook and instructs them to record everything they see.
In other hands, this would become a heartwarming tale of the human spirit. It would be called “The Book Thief,” and it would have come out last year. The Grandmother in “The Notebook,” however, is a bully, spiteful and petty, and the beatings she gives the boys lead them with a child’s logic to steel themselves to this harsh new world. They whip each other to strengthen their bodies, starve themselves to toughen their stomachs, kill small animals to harden their souls.
When they are shown kindness by a Jewish cobbler (János Derzsi), their faces register wary disbelief. But when the cobbler is shown cruelty by a heartless village beauty (Diana Kiss), the twins exact a revenge as awful as it is unemotional. They’re conditional moralists, self-taught and frighteningly pure in intent — exactly what you’d expect would grow in a spiritual vacuum.
There are times the director’s visualization of this story comes close to leaving you breathless. An Allied air raid sends adults scurrying to shelters while the two boys run into the street, twirling invincibly as the shadows of bombers cross their faces. Elsewhere, “The Notebook” is content to capture human squalor — a soldier frozen to death, a raped woman, a burning farm — amidst the beauty of rural nature. The closest thing to civilization here is the decadent SS officer (Ulrich Thomsen) who runs a nearby death camp, and you don’t want to go where he’s going.
“The Notebook” says this is what happens in war, but it strongly implies that war is a metaphor for life. The metaphor doesn’t really hold — a few low-budget explosions almost give the game away — and, worse, the relentless calamity becomes a grind, offering few insights beyond ones that are obvious in the first half hour.
Even the conceit of the boys’ notebook, slowly filling with dead beetles and images of carnage, gets oppressed right out of the movie, largely disappearing from the second half. (By the way, pity the soft-hearted souls who come to this title expecting Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams to show up.) What you take away from “The Notebook,” besides the need for a stiff drink, is the image of two naive monsters in symbiosis, each propping the other up and above all fearing separation. For then to whom would they tell their stories? Who would believe them?
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.