Another half-baked delight from the Czech film bakeries

7. 7. 2009 / Ema Čulík

I was raised on Czech fairytales. I didn't participate in a lot of British children' culture cause I was watching Broučci or Zahrada instead. For me this is still a fairy-tale country and if I hear Czech abroad it always makes me remember my childhood.. I feel like fairytales are done well here. Though I may, of course, just be being sentimental.

This morning I saw Marie Procházková's Kdopak by se vlka bál/ Who's afraid of the Wolf? . It's the story of family turbulence -- a couple (they are not named, but known only as Mum and Dad) almost divorce as their child's real father, the mother's former musical partner, returns from Japan and wants to meet up with her again. He has no interest in the child, Tereza, and yet she and her mother are supposed to go with him to Japan and start a new life as a "real" family.

Česká verze tohoto článku je ZDE

All this is shown through the eyes of six-year-old Tereza, who has just discovered the story of Little Red Riding Hood, and is quite enchanted by it. She lives through this story, fascinated with the threat of danger contained within, and also by the fact that, "Daddy, don't you think it's strange that Red Riding Hood doesn't have a Daddy?" Tereza's view on the world is pure, logical, playful. Her imagination fuelled by the ideas of her friend Šimon, who saw a movie about alien body-snatchers, Tereza constructs an elaborate theory to explain her mother's behaviour -- she's been taken over by an alien. This is unwittingly confirmed by her father's offhand comments: "Your mother's strange, you see, she's from Venus..", "She's not really feeling like herself right now."

The child's fantasy world is well created and well written, the children's dialogues are fresh and beautifully performed by the child actors, who are extremely natural and sincere, especially in comparison with the awkward and stiff adults.

Procházková's work on the children's parts of the film was attentive and inspired. It's obvious that this was her first idea, from which the whole film arose. She dots animation around the film to support the imagined world, and it works well as it's used economically, like a cherry on the cake. The character of Tereza is well-developed and thought through, and she carries us through the film as we are enchanted by her innocent and yet at times very cunning interpretation of things. When she's playing Pexeso with her parents and they start talking in hints about their problems, Tereza says, "Hey, you're plotting together against me!" And yet, when she's running away from the grown-ups in the airport, she slyly slips into a group of nursery school kids, and escapes unnoticed by her own mother.

Tereza is such a delight to watch that, at first, we don't notice how badly made the rest of the film is. In fact, this film is not a fairytale, but a story about adult behaviour, told through the vehicle of a fairytale. It's a story about people. But unfortunately there are no believable characters in it. Everyone is a cardboard cut-out, extremely stereotypical, undeveloped. If Tereza weren't in the film, it would be completely unwatchable.

First there is the mother, who quit her career as an opera singer to concentrate on motherhood. Tereza's biological father is Patrik, who is a cellist and the mother's former accompanist. When they parted (it's clumsily explained that he followed his career to Japan, and she says that she would have followed him anywhere, though we don't see why she didn't) the Mother was left with the child and met her new husband, The Father. She never shows any particularly affectionate feeling for either man and we can't understand the reason for any of her actions. When Patrik shows up at first she refuses to see him, but then does, and eventually decides to go back to Japan with him. It's not clear why, as she does not display any love for her former partner, and he certainly does not promise her anything. She claims that she is "trying to do what's right", but if so, then she is just blatantly unaware of anything that is going on around her, as Patrik doesn't care for children at all, especially not his own, Tereza has no desire to go, and The Father is a much better parent than Patrik would ever be. She would just be breaking up her family for no reason. And it can't be that she is following her career, as she never once shows any interest in it, when she's on stage she looks quite bored and is only looking out for her husband in the audience.

The only time she shows any emotion is when her daughter gets lost, but she's not even a particularly good mother as she keeps getting angry at her daughter and telling her careless lies. The Father is a more pleasant character, who is dedicated to his daughter, and does his duty at work. And yet he puts up with his wife's toi-ing and fro-ing, reacting with phrases like "I can't talk about this with you. Not today." He isn't terribly convincing.

The worst is Patrik. All he does is sneer. He never shows any affection for the woman, he's a cellist, supposedly a very talented one, but he doesn't seem to care about music. He's a stock ugly character with no positive characteristics whatsoever. Apart from the fact that watching such a character is boring and unpleasant, he does not serve to develop the story in any way. What can we learn from such an empty personage?

This demonstrates careless work, where the filmmaker had one good idea and neglected the rest of the film. One character is not enough to drive a story, especially as Tereza is not taking any of the real actions, but reacting to them. Reaction is one of the most important parts of constructing a drama, but there has to be something to react to. It is surprising to me that such 2-dimensional characters and lazy film-making makes it onto general release here. It is surprising that such stereotypical characters do not bother the cinema-goer. And this is not the first time I have seen this in Czech films. The only other film I have seen this year has been Dobře placená procházka , but this film, too, displays direction which created only stock characters: a money grabbing wife with no soul and an ineffectual academic. I guess Forman was trying to show how empty people are when all they care about is money, but it's not very effective as, when films are unwatchable due to having protagonists lacking any humanity, they can't really convince the viewer of anything.

This film might have been better if more attention had gone into fleshing out the personalities of the adults in the story. Though the concept itself has already been done before -- Terry Gilliam's Tidelands (2005), for example, also shows the machinations of adults through a little girl's dream world. And it displayed a great deal of imagination and sincerity and originality, and hence spoke powerfully to the audience, which this film doesn't.

Following in the Czech tradition, Procházková has made a nice fairytale. But in trying to make a film about real life she has failed.


Obsah vydání | Úterý 7.7. 2009