I was excited to see Já, Olga Hepnarová as part of a full house crowd on its first release. Often when I watch Czech movies at the cinema the audience is me, the projectionist and his dog, so it was pleasing to see people resisting the lure of the multiplex to support a film as resolutely un-popcorn as this. It’s a sombre arthouse character study of the last woman to be executed in Czechoslovakia.
We meet Hepnarová (Michalina Olszanska) recovering from a failed suicide attempt, and after a spell in a psychiatric hospital she shuns her comfy middle-class family to take work as a truck driver. Bitter and alienated, she lives in semi-squalor in the family’s summer cottage, drinking, smoking and seducing local women. As her mental health deteriorates, she imagines herself the victim of a bullying society and plots callous revenge.
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Up and coming Polish actress Olszanska puts in a fantastic performance as Hepnarová. She never asks for the audience’s sympathy and is immensely watchable despite her permanently glowering countenance.
The screenplay doesn’t give her much to work with so she has to build the character from the ground up, and commits to a couple of very frank sex scenes without any hint self-consciousness. With her dark bob of hair she resembles Natalie Portman in Leon, and Hepnarová‘s voracious sexuality is offset by her awkward, stooping body language, dressed in unflattering workman’s clothing.
It’s completely Olszanska’s movie, although there are a few notable supporting turns, including Klára Melíšková as Hepnarová‘s mortified mother. The film’s sole bright spot is Martin Pechlát as a much older workman who takes a shine to the glum young woman. Hard-drinking and loquacious, his hulking presence is an almost comical contrast to Hepnarová‘s slumping, bird-like frame. The screenplay leaves it up to the viewer whether she actually sleeps with him or not, but their scenes together gives the film some much needed heart and humour.
Visually, the film is delicious. Shot in wintry black and white and rich with period detail, it recalls the highly acclaimed Ida, although the title character’s stories couldn’t be more different. Ida was about a woman on a journey of self-discovery; Já, Olga Hepnarová is a journey into self-destruction.
Although a completely dislikable character, the camera loves looking at her. Puffing her way through endless cigarettes, she often looks like a chain-smoking femme fatale from an old Film Noir or the French New Wave. Breathless? You try looking this cool while smoking sixty a day…
The main problem with this film is that the screenwriters don’t delve into Hepnarová’s psyche in any detail. When she starts writing her muddled manifesto, it is not clear whether her accusations against her family and society are based on fact, or just her paranoid delusions. She describes a hellish upbringing, yet any abuse at the hands of her family are only implied, She gets beaten up by other girls in the psychiatric ward, but otherwise people treat her normally. She calls herself a “sexual cripple”, but clearly has no trouble getting other women into bed, and although she considers herself completely alone she makes solid friends who are there for her at the trial.
The story doesn’t expand on her crimes in any meaningful direction, and her victims remain nameless and faceless. Her trial, psychiatric evaluation and execution are almost a footnote, given no historical context.
In the end, I left the cinema pleasantly sated by the film’s ice cool style, but not knowing much more about Olga Hepnarová than I did when I entered. Directors Tomáš Weinreb and Petr Kazda mistake long takes of her smoking and gazing into the distance for character building. Without allowing us close to the young murderess or her victims, her final fate leaves a feeling of “So what?”.
Ultimately, Já, Olga Hepnarová is arty cinematic junk food, a hollow exercise in Eastern bloc retro chic that leaves the viewer craving for substance once the initial aftertaste of style has died away.