Oftentimes reports of mine on the venerable Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) have looked a mite askance at its gender politics. But along comes 2019 and, shut the front door – the 54th KVIFF’s two biggest Hollywood star drawcards, each having bestowed upon them Crystal Globes for Outstanding Contribution to World Cinema, were women – and women “of a certain age”, at that. Namely, Julianne Moore and Patricia Clarkson.
Moreover, the star of the 2019 festival trailer was Jiřina Bohdalová, a venerated Czech actor in her late eighties, and the Opening and Closing Ceremonies – long, both, a domain of creepy, chauvinistic showboating – did not this year unduly objectify women’s bodies, submitting women performers, for example, to having their derrieres slapped by well-dressed men as a prelude to skidding in wet swimwear back and forth across the stage of the Hotel Thermal Grand Hall (2014). Instead, all of its acrobatic performers – irrespective of gender – were dapperly clad in suits flattering to all, and distracting and detracting not one jot from their ingeniously choreographed, harness-suspended routines, their movements synched to mesh with the dynamic video projections behind them. Huzzah!
On the face of it, this is all excellent. But was it an accident? Or was it design, in continued acknowledgment of, and response to, the (film) cultural shake-up brought about by the advent of Time’s Up and #MeToo?
Prior to the festival’s commencement, Artistic Director Karel Och told Radio Prague’s Ian Willoughby that “you have to know we have been working on Julianne Moore for a good four or five years”1, and that “she’s an actress that is working a lot and despite the fact that she and her family have always wanted to join the festival, of course it was not always possible.”2
While it doesn’t reflect badly on the festival that it had already been seeking her star power for a few years, one can also surmise that her presence this year was serendipitous more than it was sought expressly to redress gender imbalances in the festival’s attractions and in its career promotions. A shame then that her eventual availability came with attachment to an underwhelming project which landed the Opening Night film slot, namely a middling remake directed by Moore’s husband, Bart Freundlich (also present), of Susanne Bier’s Efter brylluppet (After the Wedding, 2006), starring Moore, Michelle Williams and another guest, Billy Crudup.
This is not a new phenomenon, mind you, no matter the gender of the special guest. Celebrities bringing lacklustre films with them to launch the festival, in my recent KVIFF-going past, have included John Travolta with the frankly embarrassing Killing Season (Mark Steven Johnson, 2013) and Richard Gere goin’ it rough in 2015’s so-so Time Out of Mind (Oren Moverman). Far better last year’s approach, to open with a newly restored classic (Lásky jedné plavovlásky [Loves of a Blonde, Miloš Forman, 1965]), notwithstanding that its selection then was doubtless inspired chiefly by the sad recent passing of its adored director.
Admittedly, to open with this year’s high profile Czechoslovak New Wave digital restoration, Juraj Herz’s brilliant but acutely mordant, expressionist, cautionary, occupation and Holocaust comedy, Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator, 1969), would have been to kick the festival off with a supremely hard act to follow. It would though have established an immediately productive dialogue with the festival’s revelatory thematic program, Bez cenzury – literally translated, “Without censorship” but rendered in English as “Liberated” – a focus on films, some nearly as hyper-stylised as Herz’s, that premiered in the freewheeling years between 1989’s Velvet Revolution and 1993’s “Velvet Divorce”3, a time which saw Herz’s masterpiece re-released after a ban effective since 1969.
Liberated offered a selection of films united, said Karel Och, “by the fact that almost all of them bypassed the censorship which hobbled art during late socialism, yet [their makers] were able nonetheless to rely upon state resources for [their] production.”4 Accordingly the program featured films not only from young filmmakers who had seized an opportunity to make films addressing topics that couldn’t be tackled head-on under communism, but also works, seldom-seen in the West, by three Czechoslovak New Wave luminaries, all of them no strangers to censorship battles and exhibition bans in their better-known, celebrated ‘60s heydays.
The least of them, surprisingly, was Věra Chytilová’s Dědictví aneb Kurvahošigutntág (The Inheritance or Fuck off, Boys, Guten Tag, 1992), a broad comedy in which a gormless bumpkin (Bolek Polívka) comes into a fortune due to post-communist restitution laws and splashes his newfound wealth around ostentatiously. A cult hit in its homeland(s), where its dialogue has apparently long infiltrated the vernacular, any sophistication its screenplay possesses is lost in translation. Chytilová’s celebrated experimentalism is also absent.
Juraj Jakubisko appeared in person – he’s sadly one of very few of the New Wave still standing – to introduce his director’s cut of Lepšie byť bohatý a zdravý ako chudobný a chorý (It’s Better to Be Wealthy and Healthy Than Poor and Ill, 1992), a pessimistic Slovak comedy scarcely any less madcap than his ‘60s output which, like its high-water mark, the similarly end-of-an-epoch-defining Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni (Birds, Orphans and Fools, 1969), features a manic triangular relationship at the centre of a scattershot narrative. Jakubisko noted that the casting of one of its stars, Dagmar Havlová – later to become the second wife of dissident playwright-cum-President, Václav Havel, and present in the audience – was itself emblematic of the end of an era, for she “would probably not take the role of the wife of a State Security agent, who advocates for communists, today…”5
The most revelatory was Jan Němec’s utterly batshit V žáru královské lásky (The Flames of Royal Love, 1990), a phantasmagoric new world order love story bringing together a decadent, dictatorial prince (Vilém Čok), resident in Prague’s monstrous, communist-era Žižkov Television Tower and under pressure to produce an heir, and a common girl (Ivana Chýlková) who becomes terrifyingly shrewish immediately upon the consummation of their love. Suffice it to say that it ends badly – and bizarrely – for them both and for whatever territory it is meant to be that he has been ruling over. Through the timing of its production, and for its being Němec’s first film upon returning from exile, it’s a film that seems to demand an allegorical reading, yet it defies any attempt to impose a coherent one upon it. No matter; it contains nary a dull moment, a period-perfect Jan Hammer score and an over-the-top soft-porniness – something that had come with relaxations of censorship countless times elsewhere, before arriving in post-communist Czechoslovakia.
Which segues neatly onto discussion of the intense horror flick, Requiem pro panenku (Requiem for a Maiden, 1991), the first film directed by Filip Renč, who also appears in one of its few male roles. Based on a notorious true story of gross institutional neglect and arson in a North Bohemian asylum circa 1984, which cost the lives of over 20 intellectually disabled girls, Renč’s film features many tropes of the women-in-prison exploitation genre, rendered all the seedier for the institution’s charges being underaged. The protagonist is played by Aňa Geislerová, now a veteran of the local industry but then a 14 year-old in her first leading role. While she may be brilliant in anchoring the film narratively and emotionally amidst a maelstrom of expressionist ghastliness, it’s impossible to watch Requiem without feeling that one would rather one’s eyes were sometimes directed elsewhere.
Geislerová’s prior big screen role was a small one in Ondřej Trojan’s delightful feature debut Pějme píseň dohola (Let’s All Sing Around, 1990), an ensemble teen comedy centred around a gawky boy’s (Václav Chalupa) intention to lose his virginity at a summer camp. If the premise sounds very familiar, the sensibility of the film attached to it is less so; it’s a gently absurd and often very funny film heralding the arrival of its screenwriters Jan Hřebejk and Petr Jarchovský, who would work together productively for many years to come, probably peaking with two other films burlesquing 20th century Czechoslovakia’s cultural mores, Pelíšky (Cosy Dens, 1999) and Musíme si pomáhat (Divided We Fall, 2000), both written by Jarchovský and directed by Hřebejk.
Happily for this old school cinephile, several of the Liberated films were presented on 35mm. There was though a bit of a scare with the Jakubisko in the glorious, newly scaffolding-free, neo-baroque Karlovy Vary Municipal Theatre, with a couple of projection hiccups interrupting the flow and making me fearful for the condition of the rare print. That was presumably nothing as to the conniptions the Czech National Film Archive representatives must have been experiencing during the premiere of their restoration of Svatopluk Innemann’s 1923 boy scouts propaganda curio, Buď připraven! – Be Prepared, indeed! For this beautiful 35mm print, newly coloured to reflect the original tinting, began to catch fire not once but twice during its screening. Hopefully the projectors in this gorgeous old theatre will see some maintenance before the next festival.
And hopefully next year’s archival, silent era contribution to the program will have more of a sense of significance and discovery about it; Be Prepared! was by no means a forgotten masterwork, though it was definitely interesting. It made it clear that, even in the early days of the scouting movement, there was a nationalistic element behind its do-gooder, fraternal community-building branding, notwithstanding that this film was shot in a nation then barely five years old!
Which brings me to the present day, and to the only Czech film in the main competition – and even then its Czech production status was as a minority partner: Marko Škop’s excellent, slow-burn drama Nech je svetlo (Let There Be Light). In a Slovak village at Christmas time, a family is set at odds amongst its own members and with the wider community concerning a reported teen suicide; the suggestion is that a youth organisation with paramilitary leanings might be implicated in the boy’s death. The family’s elder son Adam (František Beleš, impressing as a Slovak Lucas Hedges) is a member of this group and strenuously denies any wrongdoing. However, Škop’s fine second feature, following 2015’s excellent Eva Nová, gradually pulls back to reveal a town-wide conspiracy, extensible, one might glean, to the whole nation, implicating all community leaders in murderous nationalistic intrigue including, most provocatively, high-ups in the Orthodox Church.
I caught only one other title in the main competition, favouring catching as many as possible of the notionally lesser, but for me often more interesting, East of the West competition flicks. That film was Bashtata (The Father), a wry comedy about grief from the Bulgarian duo of Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov which demonstrates a few deft sleights of hand but mostly operates in a narrative register familiar to anyone who’s seen a few miserabilist Eastern European comedies. Not half as bleak as some, for all that it’s concerned with a father’s mental instability after his wife’s passing, and with his subsequent struggles to connect with a distracted, shallow son, The Father eschews using too many calls back to communist times to prop up its core intergenerational conflict, happily relying instead more on strength of characterisation from actors Ivan Savov (the father) and Ivan Barnev (the son). The engaging and amusing Father duly won the Grand Prix.
East of the West offered some compelling viewing. The Romanian Arest (Arrest, Andrei Cohn) is a masterful, relentlessly harrowing chamber piece – actually, check that; there is one bitter joke to leaven proceedings infinitesimally – in which two men share a prison cell; for almost the entirety of the film, one man tortures the other, the former evidently having been on the flip side of just such a dynamic previously. There is no camera movement and some scenes occur almost in darkness. The minimalist sense of menace is inexorable: Arrest is an unflinching two hours having rammed home the cyclical nature of violence, and that the existential cost of collaboration with a totalitarian regime ripples ever further outwards from the collaborator to draw in more and more stooges. The two leads, Iulian Postelnicu (the torturer) and Alexandru Papadopol (the torturee) are exemplary. A terrific film; I don’t wish to ever see it again.
The Ukrainian Moi dumki tikhi (My Thoughts are Silent, Antonio Lukich) is infinitely lighter yet no less unmistakeably Eastern European – curiously, it was one of four films in East of the West to explicitly reference silence in its title. It concerns the unlikely adventures of Vadim (Andriy Lidagovskiy), a lanky field recorder of animal sounds who dreams of escape to Canada, and may just have found a means of getting there if he can only first capture the sound of a bird dwelling solely in the Carpathian Mountains, as well as shake the cloying company of his (strangely young) mother (Irma Vitovska). Oddball episodes of gently absurd hilarity ensue as, for example, Vadim, with boom mic extended at full stretch, attempts to capture the sounds of ostriches as they outrun him.
Serhat Karaaslan’s Görülmüştür (Passed by Censor) is stronger stuff, a paranoid drama about a man (Berkay Ates) who removes offending sequences from letters written by inmates of an Istanbul prison before they’re sent on to their intended recipients. Often finding his colleagues’ unconscientious conduct morally challenging, and his workplace culture downright toxic, his own sense of right and wrong is compromised when he accepts a challenge given to him by his creative writing instructor to compose a story inspired by a photograph; he uses a picture seized from an unknown prisoner’s letter, only to obsess over a woman depicted in it… with increasingly ruinous, anxiety-inducing consequences.
The East of the West Grand Prix winner was Boris Akopov’s energetic Byk (The Bull), an intriguing Russian gangster film, with some of that intrigue born of English subtitling so bad that it’s a marvel its judges were the least bit able to discern it as a film of greater accomplishment than any of the other contenders. Could all of the jury have been fluent in Russian? Well, maybe, hailing as they did from Ukraine, Finland, Czech Republic, Greece and Lithuania. But still… while I enjoyed the film, and found charismatic the performance of its stuttering, Ewan McGregor-esque lead (Yuri Borisov), I cannot fathom why such a familiar (read: positively Scorsesean) gangster flick came out above the three titles just above – and perhaps one or two others in East of the West as well.
In closing this report, I don’t wish too much to repeat myself, although it’d be apt in as much as this year’s Closing Ceremony offered much that was a replay of the Opening: to wit, it featured the same routine spectacularly fusing acrobatics and video projection, as well as a rerun of a montage celebrating 25 years of the working partnership of the faces of the festival, President Jiří Bartoška and Artistic Consultant, and erstwhile Artistic Director, Eva Zaoralová.
The performance portion of the Closing Ceremony ended with an acrobat bathetically dinging a triangle in the Thermal Grand Hall, summoning memories, narrative, and aesthetic too, given the surrounds, of Peter Solan’s wonderful satire, Prípad Barnabáš Kos (The Barnabáš Kos Case, 1964), the Slovak Film Institute’s digital restoration for this year and, despite its age, very probably a new film for the majority of its audience. Deftly underplayed by Josef Kemr, the eponymous protagonist is an orchestra member – a triangle player, specifically – who gets promoted, in a hapless, Kafkaesque fashion, wholly out of his depth, and swiftly becomes a tinpot dictator, demanding triangle solos be prominent in all of the orchestra’s repertoire. And who should perform them? Well, that goes without saying.
Onto Closing Night’s two misfires… KVIFF always runs a comprehensive film cultural obituary montage; in line with this year’s greater prominence afforded to the industry’s female talent, I found myself thinking, after its first couple of minutes, “oh, they must be leaving Agnes Varda till the end.” How wrong I was; she was left out altogether! An oversight all the more inexplicable for the inclusion in the Horizons program of her final film, Varda par Agnès (Varda by Agnès), and for the running of a tribute to her in Czech in Festivalový deník (the Festival Daily newspaper) from Eva Zaoralová.
On which note, I’ll digress to raise a pet peeve: the amount of quality material that appears in the larger Czech portion of the festival paper that isn’t translated and included in the English insert. I’m fortunate; I can understand a certain amount of Czech, but I think the festival does itself a disservice by not translating into English a lot of material in the Daily concerning domestic cinema, in particular – does it presume visitors to be disinterested – or want them to be? Especially in a year when the programming package highlight – I’ll even rate it above an 11-feature strong tribute to Youssef Chahine, as that’s doing the wider festival rounds – was the Liberated retrospective, exclusive to KVIFF, celebrating an unrepeatable period of Czechoslovak cinema rich in wonders and rarities. I’m certain that greater illumination on the films and the personalities behind them would have been welcomed by all comers to Karlovy Vary; had more of that material been translated then everyone could have enjoyed, for a fun example, the “Slovak Fellini”, Juraj Jakubisko’s account of boating in Venice with the actual Fellini – not just Czech readers.
Also, this year’s trailer was completely baffling to most non-locals, but had the Daily run its interview with Jiřina Bohdalová in English as well, then visitors would have had a context in which to position this odd short, played so often before films during the festival, in which a seemingly mad old woman (Bohdalová) hears strange voices crying out nonsensical things like “Hyperdoom!” as she attempts to make an electric lamp out of her Crystal Globe (awarded to her in 2016) in her lounge room. Part of Bohdalová’s fame in the Czech and Slovak lands is for voicing fantastical creatures in pohádky, or fairy tales, but without that knowledge, the trailer could only have been mystifying.
Anyway, back to Closing Night – and to the Closing Night film itself. While the Opening Night selection was a function of Julianne Moore’s serendipitous availability, the choice of Closing Night viewing was surely, au contraire, a calculated move to signal that the festival had read the room vis-à-vis Time’s Up and #MeToo.
Rather than screen a film connected with either of Closing Night’s Crystal Globe recipients, Patricia Clarkson or Czech cinematographer Vladimír Smutný (since to have become the talk of Venice for his work on Václav Marhoul’s instantly notorious Nabarvené ptáče [The Painted Bird]), KVIFF ran Late Night (Nisha Ganatra), a lightly comedic feature wholly concerned with screen cultural workplace wokeness, starring Emma Thompson as a talk show host with a flagging career. Her writing team are all men; but… what if she were to hire a woman – any woman…? That would surely turn things around; that that anywoman should turn out to be a woman of colour (and, specifically, Mindy Kaling), then so much the better, as the film unsubtly makes clear. However, the best of intentions and a few good lines certainly do not a great film make; the screenplay (by Kaling herself) lacks any bite or depth of characterisation, and is overall very pat in stating its case for the benefits to all concerned of a respectful, diverse workforce – making Late Night a disappointingly slight way to see out the festival for another year.
Never mind though; it was a good year in Karlovy Vary in so many other respects, and I’ll always carry with me one particularly delightful abiding memory, even if one of an opportunity not seized – and it was a truly singular, unseized opportunity at that. It was not, strictly speaking, a part of the festival; it wasn’t listed anywhere among the festival’s extensive program of auxiliary attractions. It was though clearly an initiative that wouldn’t have come into being were it not for the KVIFF.
Presumably hatched by local officialdom to bring the world of film festivity and Karlovy Vary’s rest-of-the-year-round wellness industry principal attractions closer together, a free “film bath” was on offer in the Functionalist Hot Spring Colonnade in the tourist centre downtown. Pitched as “photographing in a bathtub full of film strips”, the promotional poster featured a seemingly headless, torsoless woman in a bath, with her legs up in the air and her hands holding a film strip crosswise, while more strips of film pour out of the bath all around her. Apparently the idea is that one was to step into a bath full of celluloid and… take a selfie?… for some reason. And for no charge, as “ALL OF YOU ARE HONEST GUESTS” (all caps per the original).
If that weren’t agreeably bizarre enough, the rules offered such sage advice as “It is also possible to bathe in underwear which may be old but clean or carefully patched.” But what to make of such rules, when rule number one, “before bathing, please take your shoes off”, was directly contradicted by the photo beside it?
Oh, such hilarity! Only in Karlovy Vary…
Now, I’d like to give the film bath the benefit of the doubt and presume it a prank, but… suffice it to say that next year I’ll arrive in Karlovy Vary with appropriately darned knickers befitting the solemnity and uniqueness of the opportunity, should it somehow be on offer again. Here’s hoping! For if there’s one thing that’s a certainty, it’s that the KVIFF, for all its awkwardness in engagement with conversations occurring more broadly in film festival culture (like so many other festivals, to be fair), will continue to prove an addictive festival destination, with terrific retrospective programming reliably accompanied by some quality films in competition and enhanced by off-screen attractions, official and otherwise, peculiar to the region, which collectively provide ample reason to keep on coming back, which is precisely what I have every intention of doing.
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
28 June – 6 July 2019
Festival website: https://www.kviff.com/en/homepage
- Ian Willoughby, “Organisers ‘over the moon’ to secure Julianne Moore for Karlovy Vary”, Radio Prague International, 12 June 2019. Accessed 8 September 2019. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- There was one exception: Čas sluhů (Time of the Servants), Irena Pavlásková’s winner of the Caméra d’Or Special Distinction at Cannes in 1990, premiered in Czechoslovakia just prior to the Velvet Revolution. The so-called “Velvet Divorce” was the peaceable splitting of Czechoslovakia into two sovereign republics. ↩
- Karel Och, interviewed by Veronika Bednářová in “Nejsme na sebe jako psi” in Festivalový deník, 28 June 2019, p. 2. Translation mine. ↩
- Juraj Jakubisko, interviewed by Zbyněk Vlasák in “Slovenský Fellini” in Festivalový deník, 6 July 2019, p. 3. Translation mine. ↩