15th 03 - 2017 | 2 comments »

Eva Nová (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Marko Škop

2017 European Union Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Most movies about alcoholics tend to put drunken behavior front and center, offering actors a golden opportunity to give the kind of dramatic performances that awarding organizations love (e.g., Oscar wins for Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas [1995] and Susan Hayward in I’ll Cry Tomorrow [1955], and Oscar nominations for Dudley Moore in Arthur [1981] and Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses [1963]). I’ve generally felt that, whether in fiction or real life, people under the influence are the farthest thing from entertaining, but who they are is another matter. Thus, while the title character of Marko Škop’s feature debut, Eva Nová, is addicted to alcohol, her story is complicated, compelling, and deeply moving.

Emília Vášáryová plays Eva, a famous Soviet-era actress in her early 60s to whom we are introduced on the last day of her third trip to rehab. She gives a recitation as her farewell gift to the women in her therapy group, and one of them gives her a tiny plastic camel to remind her that she can go without a drink as long as a camel can go without water. She returns to her flat, goes to a cabinet where she stashed a bottle of vodka before her hospitalization, and dumps it down the sink, turning her head away so as not to catch the scent of liquor. It is a fragile time for Eva, and the emptiness of her apartment seems to weigh on her heavily.

The next day, she boards a train to the countryside to visit her son, Dodo (Milan Ondrík), who lives with his family and Eva’s sister, Manka (Žofia Martišová), in the house where the older women grew up. Dodo’s wife, Helena (Anikó Varga), is not happy to see Eva but invites her in for a cup of tea anyway. Eva’s grandson, Palko (Alexander Lukac), just looks down and refuses to speak with her, and she meets her seven-year-old granddaughter, Noemi (Michaela Melisová), for the first time. When Dodo and Manka return to the house, Dodo refuses to let her stay with them and deposits Eva, her suitcase, and the box of chocolates she brought as a gift on the street. She’s forced to stay at a cheap hotel. The next day, when she checks out, we see that she has eaten all the candy.

This detail of the empty candy box is one of many telling moments that director Škop and Vášáryová use to build an indelible portrait of a vain, weak, older woman whose hungers outstrip her ability to fulfill them. But Eva Nová does more than this—it interrogates the place of women in Slovakian society, and arguably, other societies, and how the ages-old bugaboo against actresses aging plays into Eva’s problems. Vášáryová herself is a legend of Slovak and Czech theatre, film, and television who has claimed the titles of Actress of the Century by the Slovak Journalists Syndicate, as well as First Lady of the Slovak Theatre. Škop strategically positions photos of a younger Vášáryová in Eva’s apartment and uses clips from her films; thus, the actress not only accesses her character’s struggles with alcohol and the damage she has caused to her personal relationships, but also draws on the challenges Vášáryová herself faced at one point in her career trying to continue to work in an industry that worships youth.

Škop has said that he got the idea for Eva Nová from interviewing French superstar Annie Giradot, who covered up her struggles with alcohol, depression, and disillusionment by acting a version of her screen persona for him. Vášáryová is in almost every scene, a true star turn for the actress playing a character 12 years younger than herself (Or is she? Eva may be lying about her age.). Škop’s shooting style is very simple, with straight-on shots of understated moments reminiscent of Chantal Akerman’s technique and close-ups that bring us into the space of these characters. The latter technique is especially important for Eva so that we can evaluate the relative truthfulness of her interpersonal interactions, an opportunity we realize we need when we watch her rehearse an apology to her family in the mirror before she turns up on their doorstep.

Škop doubles down on his mirror imaging when Eva encounters the much younger, pregnant wife of her long-time lover at an industry reception, both dressed in red, their repeated images in the bathroom mirrors subtly evoking the horrifying hall of mirrors in The Lady from Shanghai (1947). Her lover rejected her and her bastard son, and denied her the child he is now having with her replacement. By now, Eva has gotten drunk and abusive, and she is dragged out of the reception as the paparazzi snap the kinds of pictures that made her a pariah in what is the most dramatic scene in the film. Then the film reverts to its air of quiet despair. At home, Eva’s bra strap has crawled back onto her shoulder from its hiding place down the sleeve of her off-the-shoulder dress, another detail of her fight against her aging body.

Although Vášáryová is in nearly every frame of this picture, she does not suck air from her supporting cast. Ondrík is very effective as a man who is beyond bitter with his mother, but bullying to his breadwinner wife and his daughter, whom he trains to repeat that she loves him in an awkward, creepy scene. Martišová is matter-of-factly disgusted with her sister, telling her that she is still paying off the headstone for their mother and rejecting any help other than financial when Eva tries to ingratiate herself. Only Helena gives Eva a break, with Varga hinting at why her character may feel more kindly disposed toward her mother-in-law when Eva confirms that Palko must definitely be Dodo’s son.

Still, Vášáryová shows Eva to be a survivor doggedly determined to keep control of her life. She endures the comedown of working as a shelver in a grocery store and performing a soliloquy for a group of dementia patients at a nursing home. She hangs on to the house where Dodo and his family live after it becomes hers on Manka’s death, refusing to sign it over to Dodo and agree to disappear from his life. In the end, she finds a precarious solidarity with Helena in a final tableau that suggests that women may only have each other to lean on in the end.

Eva Nová screens Wednesday, March 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

J: Beyond Flamenco: Master dance filmmaker Carlos Saura offers up another fascinating look at dance styles from Spain, this time, jota, a folksy, upbeat style from his native province of Aragón. (Spain)

Portrait of a Garden: This contemplative documentary shows a year in the life of a 400-year-old estate garden and a loving look at two master gardeners trying to pass on the wisdom of many years of working with plants, soil, and climate. (The Netherlands)

Tomorrow, After the War: A detailed look at wartime betrayals that threaten the tranquility of a small village when a Resistance fighter returns home and starts digging into a murder case. (Luxembourg/Belgium)

My Name Is Emily: A teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny when she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)

4th 05 - 2006 | no comment »

I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955)

Director: Daniel Mann

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Lillian Roth was a professional entertainer who entered show business in 1916, at the age of five, appeared on stage billed as “Broadway’s Youngest Star” and in silent films during the 1910s and 20s, and became popular for her bluesy singing voice and presence in talkies and on the stage during the 1930s. By 1934, Roth had become a raging alcoholic, and her career took a precipitous dive. She staged a comeback in the late 40s and 50s after she attained sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous and published an autobiography in 1954 called I’ll Cry Tomorrow. The popular book was quickly optioned by MGM and made into a film of the same name that earned Susan Hayward her fourth Academy Award nomination for her harrowing performance as Roth.

In many ways, I’ll Cry Tomorrow was the most typical film of its time. The so-called women’s films made by directors such as Mitchell Leisen, Douglas Sirk, Vincent Minnelli, and George Cukor, to which I’ll Cry Tomorrow belongs, are solid melodramas that center on the life and loves of a woman. Some of these films can be sudsy, but more often they tend to deal with their heroine’s dilemmas in a fairly straightforward way, giving women in the audience a fantasy that they can still identify with.

Another popular element in films of this time was Freudianism and other psychological theories. I’ll Cry Tomorrow provides psychological reasons aplenty for Roth’s descent into a bottle and abusive relationships, and extols the virtues of self-help remedies and support groups. In many ways, this film pioneered an approach so many modern women’s films—and the general population—have adopted, and it certainly provided a successful template for the 1962 biopic Gypsy, starring Natalie Wood.

So what does this film have to offer that is peculiarly its own? I’ll Cry Tomorrow has a feeling of truth about it, an attention to detail, even as it ranges over a very wide time span and life experience, that keeps it rooted in the central dilemma of its main character. It is suggested in a couple of very painfully rendered scenes that Roth’s problems stemmed from a stage mother who refused to let Lillian plan her own life and filled her with feelings of worthlessness. The scenes between the young Lillian (Carole Anne Campbell) and mother Katie (Jo Van Fleet) are filled with desperation and longing. I felt genuinely touched when a neighbor boy named David (David Kasday) gets Lillian involved in a water fight, allowing her to behave like a child for a brief time. Of course, this brief respite is shattered when the two children skip up to Lillian’s apartment to be greeted by an ecstatic Katie saying that Lillian has received a stage booking and will be leaving town in a couple of days.

Lillian does go on to fame and fortune. We catch up with Katie and the grown-up Lillian in Hollywood, where she is breaking into pictures under contract to Paramount. Her peformance of “Sing You Sinners” in Honey garners attention in Hollywood. She seems poised for a career build-up by Paramount. One day, she encounters a handsome man in a doctor’s office who turns out to be her childhood friend David (Ray Danton). He has been trying to reach her for days, but her mother never passed on his messages. Lillian and David begin a romance that results in a confrontation with Katie. Lillian wishes to leave show business for a private life as David’s wife. David provides the courage Lillian needs to try to have her own life, and Katie is visibly shaken and disappointed.

Alas, happiness is not to be. David was at the doctor’s office for a serious reason he never disclosed to Lillian. He ends up in the hospital, growing weaker and weaker. A call comes to the theatre where Lillian is performing that David has died. Lillian sinks into a deep depression. Her mother hires a nurse companion for her (Virginia Gregg) who makes the fateful decision to give Lillian some scotch (you can practically hear a warning buzz of violin strings) to help her get some sleep. Lillian begins to use alcohol as a sedative every night. Soon it invades her entire life, creating problems for her performances on stage (she has to hold onto a chair at one point so she won’t stumble around the stage or collapse) and eventually sending her penniless to Skid Row after she escapes the abusive clutches of her second husband Tony (Richard Conte, in a chilling performance).

The film has minimal voiceover narration by Hayward, mainly to let us know Lillian’s state of mind. She tells us that a feeling of calm and confidence came over her when she first began to drink, providing us with a psychology for her continued drinking—an escape from her feelings of worthlessness. In fact, the real Lillian Roth’s father was an alcoholic. Certainly the effects of living with an alcoholic parent and an anxious mother who used Lillian (and her sister, omitted from the movie) to provide the family with a livelihood must have taken its toll. It is very likely, however, that a genetic predisposition was the main culprit behind her severe alcoholism. But such ideas were unknown in 1955 and could not be a part of this movie of inspiration.

Lillian attempts to throw herself out of a window one day, but can’t finish the task. She ends up at an AA meeting, where the man she will later marry, Burt McGuire (Eddie Albert), becomes her sponsor. The film ends with Lillian making an appearance on the TV tribute show, “This Is Your Life,” where she becomes one of the first celebrities to go public with her story of addiction and recovery through AA. Again, Roth was a trendsetter for future generations of addicted celebrities.

Susan Hayward’s performance is intense. While her fear of her mother in the early sequences doesn’t really come across, she lets all of her hatred loose late in Lillian’s addictive cycle, accusing her mother of living off her and ruining her chances for happiness. One feels sorry for Katie for taking the blame for all of Lillian’s problems—also a common psychological theory of the time that this movie does not debunk but suggests is overstated. I was absolutely blown away by Hayward’s singing style, which compares favorably with Sophie Tucker—correct for the period during which Roth was at her most popular and very, very good. The film does not pay much attention to period detail at first, but moves into its contemporary time frame coherently. The main focus is Lillian’s alcoholism, which shortchanges her years as a performer a bit, but overall, I think an acceptable balance was reached.

I’ll Cry Tomorrow has been called an unsubtle sudser by some, but I can’t agree. I have a great fondness for the early women’s films that are stylized in a way that speaks to women. This film is among the best of the bunch.

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