18th 10 - 2013 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2013: The Don Juans (Donšajni, 2013)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Jirí Menzel

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of the things I love most about much of Czech cinema is its joyously subversive attitude toward life. When my Czech dentist told me that when efforts to remove a Soviet tank from a square in Prague were going nowhere—the Czechs took it down, the Soviets put it back, and so forth—some Czechs finally laid the matter to rest by painting it pink, too big an embarrassment to the Soviets to let stand. How very Czech! Thus, when I heard a grand master of the Czech New Wave, Jirí Menzel, would have a film at this year’s CIFF, I couldn’t wait to see it.

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The last time Menzel showed at the CIFF, it was with his film I Served the King of England (2006), a surprisingly buoyant sex farce set before, during, and a bit after the rise of Nazism in Europe. It was apparent then that Menzel has a prodigious appreciation of the female of the species, his love and joy of women apparent even in the darker sequences portraying the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. In I Served, the main protagonist is a small, horny man, almost a pet to the prostitutes he beds and whose naked bodies he decorates with flowers. In The Don Juans, Menzel lightly tarnishes the innocence of sex he previously celebrated. His central character and occasional first-person narrator, Vítec (Jan Hartl), is a small-town opera director who claims (falsely) to hate opera and who beds as many sopranos as he can get his hands on.

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His company is filled with regional singers of varying levels of skill, most of whom have businesses or jobs on the side. For his production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, he brings in Jakub (Martin Huba), an aged lyric bass of some renown, to play Don Pedro, the man who condemns Don Giovanni to burn in hell. Jakub was also a Don Juan in his day, and his return to the Czech Republic after a successful career in the United States brings him face to face with a former lover from some 40 years in the past, the eccentric Markétka (Libuse Safránková), whom he impregnated and abandoned. Through Markétka and an ego-deflating soprano (Marie Málková) who tells him that his good luck with women is directly related to what he can do for their careers, Vítec becomes a wiser, if not entirely repentant man.

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The Don Juans is a broad comedy with a wealth of sight gags. For example, as Vítec tells us about his lust for sopranos, we get a series of quick-cut images of women’s faces as they hit a high note while laying on his bed, the affirmation of his sexual prowess, at least in his mind. Markétka finds herself in police custody twice, first following a swat team raid on a 250-year-old opera house where she has trespassed with a group of children to stage a children’s opera, and second, after she has driven off with a car being used in a robbery to prevent the theft and crashed it into a butcher shop. Both scenes are played for antic humor, as the heavily armed police watch a long stream of children pour out of the theatre door, and as the hapless woman who doesn’t know how to drive barrels through the streets, all four doors wide open and slamming into objects along the way. Markétka is a delightful character whose reminiscences of Jakub, her greatest love, are dewy and bright, but who is rueful about how such Don Juans leave a trail of tearful women in their wake.

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There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that Vítec has inspired such heartbreak in his women. They all pass through his bed and into his shower, where he presents them with a basketful of unopened toothbrushes, unabashed about how many one-night stands he has. None of them seem jealous, confirming that he is a means to an end and nothing more. Vítec’s character takes on the lightest of shades when he comes into Markétka’s orbit; it was his car that was stolen to use in the robbery, and he comes to the police station to meet the woman who wrecked it and sort out the property damages. He learns her story, meets the 40-year-old daughter, 20-year-old granddaughter, and 6-year-old great-granddaughter who emanated from her affair with Jakub, and works to bring them together, a brief encounter that will end for the sick, feeble Jakub as it did for Don Giovanni, in death.

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I found the performers enchanting right down to their toes. Safránková plays her part with a combination of ditzy abandon and calculation. Her reverence for the old opera house, learning to work its ancient scenery-changer and introducing Vítec to the glory of the past, seems fitting for a film about an anachronistic art form that in the newly capitalist Czech Republic will be defunded to pursue more lucrative enterprises, like a casino or hockey rink. Yet, the opera company members are moving into the future in much the same way as the rest of the country. Málková is a hard-looking punk rocker, but with her glorious voice, she bumps the less-gifted Alenka (Anna Klamo) from the part as Donna Anna, even though Alenka slept with Vítec to get her diminutive husband (Jiří Hájek) the starring role. Another singer runs a travel agency, taking calls on her cellphone during rehearsals and performances. Still another sleeps her way to wealth, providing the wedding in the final scene that Vítec says is essential to a successful story.

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The Don Juans is a lovely film to look at and a generally joyful romp overflowing with gags. Its examination of the cruelty of womanizers is light as air, but still makes its point to some degree. The film is a bit disjointed, favoring comedy over coherence, particularly in delineating the separate stories of Vítec and Markétka until they merge. As Don Giovanni is my favorite Mozart opera, I reveled in the music that liberally scores the film, but the obvious dubbing was a bit distracting. Nonetheless, I found myself grinning through much of the picture, levitating on the luscious images, generally spot-on humor, and always engaging Czech sensibility. This is a fluffy effort, to be sure, but one that is a pleasure from start to finish.

The Don Juans screens Saturday, October 19, 1:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Previous coverage

The Exhibition: In this thoughtful and comprehensive documentary, an ambitious artist raises provocative and controversial issues when she paints a series of violent portraits of murdered prostitutes. (Canada)

Melaza: Economic uncertainty causes a young couple in love to make ingenious and risky arrangements to keep afloat in this lovely, surprisingly funny slice of life under communism. (Cuba)

H4: Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts I and II are given a contemporary spin by this spirited African-American production starring the great Harry Lennix as the title character. (USA)

Lifelong: The final breakdown of an unhappy marriage between an artist and her architect husband is chronicled in painful detail. (Turkey/The Netherlands/Germany)

Papusza: A biopic about the renowned Romany-Polish poet Bronisława Wajs, aka Papusza, is rendered in stunning images, with a strong emphasis on Romy life during the 20th century. (Poland)

The Verdict: The Belgian criminal justice system is put on trial when a man who was denied justice for his murdered wife takes the law into his own hands and dares a jury to convict him of premeditated murder. (Belgium)

A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)

Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)

The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)

Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)


21st 07 - 2008 | 11 comments »

Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1966)

Director: Věra Chytilová

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I’ve read numerous summaries of Daisies, a seminal film of the Czech New Wave, as well as a few analyses, and I must say that I feel rather dissatisfied with all of them. Among the many labels attached to this film is that it is feminist. I’ve mulled this experimental piece of pop art quite a bit, and darn if I can find anything particularly feminist about it. I guess that’s just a boilerplate assumption about movies directed by women. Certainly, if I had to characterize the approach Chytilová takes with this film, it would be feminine, not feminist. She’s a delightful, spirited girl who likes nothing better than to misbehave. She scribbles all over her coloring book, imaginatively making things the wrong color, and moves her “dolls” through various pretend-to-be-adult games, like going on a date with father, having grown-up drinks in a nightclub, and being a beautiful woman with whom all men fall in love.

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The film opens with an aerial view of bombed-out buildings, then moves in on a machine grinding through its gears. Two sisters, Jezinka (Ivana Karbanová) and Jarmila (Jitka Cerhová), sitting in bikinis against a wall, move mechanically with machinelike sounds emanating from each bending joint and wonder what to do. They get up and walk through a very green thicket to a large tree hung with brightly colored fruit. Each pulls a piece of fruit off the tree and chows down. The girls then head into the world for a series of madcap adventures.

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Jezinka is at a restaurant with an elegant older man, when Jarmila comes in and makes herself at home. She orders with abandon and eats like a horse. The old gentleman is taken aback by Jezinka’s sister, but tries to be polite. Jezinka worries about her train. The trio race to the train station and play a game of Chinese fire drill. The train carries the man off without Jezinka. The sisters are gleeful at pulling this trick off, but Jezinka worries that Jarmila will tell that she goes around with old men. The pair pulls this stunt several times in scenes Mack Sennett would have been proud to include in his Keystone Kops comedies.

The girls go to a nightclub, entering through a backstage door and disrupting the tango dancers on stage. They take a booth, start drinking, and begin jumping up and down in their box (surely a trampoline is hidden below), while the dancers glare at them and soldier on to the end of their act. The drunken sisters are escorted out and go home.

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“It’s so nice to be home,” they say, using one of several cliched lines that pop up throughout the film. Their home looks like a little girls’ room, with pictures pasted on the walls. Paper streamers and apples are strewn about. They paint their eyes with long slashes of a paint brush, the kind of improvised make-up kit girls would use to be like Mommy.

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Jarmila goes out on a date. She enters her date’s room, which is covered wall to wall with butterfly specimens. Jarmila removes her clothes and holds two cases, one with two butterflies and the other with one, over her breasts and genital area. She moves coyly across the room when the man plucks the lower butterfly out of its frame. He whispers words of love as he does so. Jarmila runs back home with the words echoing around her as she sits with Jezinka on their bed. We can imagine the echo comes from all of the “butterflies” in the man’s collection, and Jarmila is completely unmoved by them in her remembrance. Nonetheless, she takes a pair of scissors and cuts Jezinka’s dress to pieces, saying, “You don’t mind, do you?” This line is repeated several times until they light the contents of their home on fire in an aggressive scene of destruction.

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The climax of the film is the food orgy. The sisters smuggle themselves up a dumbwaiter into a banquet hall resplendent with elegant and exotic dishes and proceed to eat, throw food at each other, and smash dishes with abandon. After this epic food fight, they end up swinging on the crystal chandelier hanging above the table. They suddenly must repair everything they have broken, placing pieces of dishes together like a mosaic and piling cakes back into something like the shape they started in. The busy-bee buzzing of the voices of the girls working at this pathetic repair are frantic, mechanical, with the film speeded up. When they finish their task, they lay down in the center of the banquet table. The chandelier comes crashing down on them, and we switch to another aerial view of carpet bombing.

Daisies%20cut.jpgDaisies is the kind of film that just sweeps one along in its antic merriment. The eye-popping cinematography and editing of Jaroslav Kucera and Miroslav Hájek, respectively, are a dazzling array of color, super-quick cutting, and strong close-ups that envelop the viewer in the detail of the moment. One scene, in which the sisters cut each other with scissors, is a riot of floating heads, limbs, and torsos. Karbanová, as the dark-haired sister, seems slightly more demure than Cerhová, her daisy-crowned sister, who subtly acts as the leader of the pair. Her playful sexual awakening seems to unleash a certain aggression, escalating to the banquet scene–a painful act of destruction that is, nonetheless, a lot of fun to watch. I felt very happy to spend time with these girls.

The Czech government was not at all amused, however, wondering how public funds could be thrown away on “trash” that made no sense. They also didn’t like the display of wasted food. Chytilová was unable to make films for years until she wrote an impassioned and lengthy letter vowing her dedication to socialist principles and explaining that the film was meant to show how small acts of destruction can build up and create an atmsophere in which greater destruction can take place. Well, this is one way to look at it, and since she’s the director, I guess she ought to know. What I tend to think is that she let the genie out of the bottle, bringing vibrance and life to what had become a drab existence under Communism. Her playfulness, sexual freedom, and flower power attitude are very much in keeping with the Czech films I’ve seen (especially I Served the King of England by Czech New Waver Jirí Menzel) and still have their allure today.


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