Isabell Szollosy


Memory and madness, format vs. content: An analysis of Tellef Johnson's film "SOLFEGE" by F. Berger

Tellef Johnson's first film, SOLFEGE, is a 34-minute short, shot in a variety of different formats, from digital video to 35mm black-and-white. The sections shot in video and the sections shot in film represent different layers or worlds within the same story, and each format calls to mind a particular set of direct influences from subgenres exclusively designed by these formats: the antique newsreel (35mm), the reality video, the mockumentary, the "celeb" expose [digital video]. These subgenres help form the content and structure for Johnson's tale, and the person of interest is Isabel Szollosy (played by singer-actress-producer Reka Leszay) who lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Johnson's directorial style is invisible enough for a while to make one wonder if the film isn't actually a real profile of a performer, but gradually the realistic exposition of Szollosy's supposedly superstar life gives way to a harsh reality ultimately based in surreality as her life gradually falls apart around her.

Breakdown at the Plaza

Johnson's CITIZEN KANE-styled introduction (shot on Kodak 5222 B/W film stock) acts as a backstory for Isabel. When there is an abrupt cut to grimy color digital video, we realize we are in the present modern day, in Isabel's own private reality video. So was the newsreel real? Or a figment of her imagination? Imagination begins to play an increasingly intriguing role in the unfolding narrative, as Johnson purports to show her "real" life with in raw video, yet slowly subverts our perception within this familiar format by escaping into a series of visions or fantasies that Isabel delves into. Much of the time Isabel sits isolated in her Manhattan apartment in the Ansonia Hotel, itself a host in real life to Hollywood psychological thrillers (SINGLE WHITE FEMALE[1992], DON'T SAY A WORD [2001]). It is at this point where Johnson fully loses interest in his mockumentarian trappings, as SOLFEGE is now a harrowing story of a woman's psychological struggle within a confined space, owing much to the classic thrillers REPULSION (1964) as well as earlier predecessors GASLIGHT (1944) and NOTORIOUS (1946). Through Isabel's tortured memories, it is gradually revealed that she was (and still is) the victim of a mentally abusive relationship with a now-dead tenor, Luigi, once seen as an amorous lover in the newsreel, but now a troubled mirage in Isabel's skewed daydreams. Yet Johnson uses perception in an unusual way -- what is real? Is this Isabel's true perspective or her idealized interpretation of events, or just ours, the audience? Is her life in "video" the reality or the surreality? Or perhaps everything is as it seems, but the introductory newsreel is false, the impression of fame is just that, a fleeting mirage, and we are left with the nightmares of a woman on the edge of collapse.

In the final confrontation scene, between Isabel and the apparent ghost of the apparently lamented Luigi, the singer holds a knife to her throat, as if this is the only link between her and the past, and the source of her torment, the ghosts of her life. "I will show you," she tells Luigi, who has responded, "You're unhappy, and I never want to see you unhappy again." Yet, in a previous scene where Luigi's disembodied voice intones these same words to Isabel over the phone, he reminds her also that "you sing for me, baby." Is the one thing that Isabel is famous for -- her singing -- the one thing that she feels imprisoned by, and forced to do by Luigi -- a metaphor for what exactly? Luigi, revealed in the opening newsreel as her paramour and stage collaborator is in reality a vengeful monster at times, lurking in the closet, in her bathroom, on the telephone. He very well could epitomize Isabel's guilt, her conscience, and her demons.


A Kiss

Luigi (Tellef Johnson) and Isabel (Reka Leszay) in better days

Luigi in Isabel's nightmare

Tellef Johson's SOLFEGE is an intriguing psychological study into the creative mind and struggle of performers in a world that devours and spits them out readily, while touching on universal themes of human loneliness. The signature image in the film is a slow tracking shot into singing Isabel's mouth, past her epiglottis and down the throat into the unknown -- the ultimate metaphor for into the void.