From Subway with Love is the English title for Román pro ženy (A Novel for Women), although a more appropriate title may have been Men’s Midlife Crisis: The Movie…
I approached the film with pretty low expectations, because a) I’ve already come into contact with two movies adapted from his own novels by the virulent Michal Viewegh, and b) this DVD cover art –
Let’s take a moment to see what we have here. There’s a beautiful young woman, staring seductively at the camera. She’s in a submissive pose, kneeling as she kisses the hand of a man, who is mostly out of the frame. The positioning of the man’s forearm suggests that the rest of his body is open to the camera. I’m intrigued by what is happening outside the borders of this photo. What could the man be doing while this young woman is humbling herself before his masculinity? Drinking a beer? Unzipping his fly? Playing paddle ball? Check out later in the review to find out…
This image instantly reminded me of the discussion around Spinal Tap‘s problematic cover art for their album “Smell the Glove” –
Bobbi: You put a greased naked woman on all fours with a dog collar around her neck, and a leash, and a man’s arm extended out up to here, holding onto the leash, and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it. You don’t find that offensive? You don’t find that sexist?
Ian: Well you should have seen the cover they wanted to do. It wasn’t a glove, believe me…
So, knowing what I already know so far about Michal Viewegh: when it came to the cover art for Román pro ženy, it’s pretty sexist, but you should have seen the cover he wanted to do…
Anyway, the movie. It’s the tale of 20-year-old Laura (Zuzana Kanócz) and her quest for Mr Right in modern day Prague, and her lovelorn mother Jana (Simona Stasová), who’s also on the lookout for a new fella, as Laura’s father literally ate himself to death several years earlier. She’s had a gutfull of Czech men after some bitter previous relationships, so is trying to find herself a foreign bloke.
Laura’s definition of Mr Right is pretty broad, as she seems to fall head over heels – and straight into the sack – with any man that looks at her. First up is her creepy English teacher, who she snags after making eyes at him for a few lessons. “Don’t worry, I will use a condom.” he reassures her in Czech as they head out for their first date, harking back to an earlier scene where Laura is gossiping about him with her friend, without realizing that he can understand him. When it comes to chat up lines it’s hardly “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”, but she seems pretty cool with it.
Next up is the materialistic and utterly vapid Rickie (Jaromír Nosek), an airheaded mobile phone salesman. Laura regards Rickie with barely concealed contempt, but hey, he takes her on a swanky skiing holiday to the Tatras, so that’s OK. Besides, he’s usually too busy looking at his phone to realize that she’s glaring at him like he’s something that just fell out of her nose.
While they’re getting a bite to eat one day, Laura notices Oliver (Marek Vašut), a 40-year-old douchebag and self-proclaimed alcoholic who works in advertising, where he cooks up corny slogans for a variety of products. He catches her eye with his over-sized joie de vivre – a quality that can often be mistaken for douchiness, and vice versa – and as is her wont, Laura instantly starts flirting back across Rickie’s shoulder.
It doesn’t take Laura very long to start sleeping with Oliver behind Rickie’s back once they’re back to the city, but then there’s a twist. Spoiler alert for From Subway with Love – Oliver just happens to be one of her mum’s ex-boyfriends.
Jana’s understandably freaked out at first by coming home to find a old lover standing stark bollock naked in her hallway, and even more so to discover that he’s banging her daughter.
She soon gets over it, though, setting up a weird dynamic for the rest of the movie – Oliver playing happy families with mother and daughter, both of whom he’s slept with.
Further complications arise. Laura catches Oliver having a crafty snog with his ex at a party, but gets over it very quickly once Oliver drops 75,000kc on taking Laura and her mum away for an all inclusive Christmas holiday to the Canary Islands. Laura’s a sucker for ostentatious displays of wealth, so buying her a holiday is a sure fire way back into her heart and knickers. While they’re on holiday, Jana starts dating a German stereotype – literally, he might as well be wearing lederhosen and one of those hats with a feather sticking out of it – but it’s a short-lived romance.
A year later, Laura and Oliver are on another ski holiday, at the same resort where they first started sneaking around behind her previous boyfriend’s back. True to form, Laura responds to a lover’s tiff by jumping straight into the lap of a douchey paraglider. Suddenly she’s in love with this guy, and is driven to a psychotic rage when he doesn’t call her when they get back to the city.
Oliver, the man of grand and extravagantly expensive gestures, decides to win back Laura’s heart. To do this, he rents out advertising space on subway cars in Prague, displaying love letters to her. His plan is that she’ll read them, realize what a great guy he is, and go running back to him.
He could have saved himself a few quid by just posting the letters to her, but he’s such an egomaniac that he also wants every other woman in the city to read them too, and swoon over what a great guy he is. Of course, if he did that, it wouldn’t be such a grand gesture and wouldn’t appeal to Laura so much – she’d probably just screw the letters up and throw them in the bin. However, she seems satisfied that his gesture is grand and expensive enough, and runs back to him. The end.
From Subway With Love is clearly trying to cash in on the massive success of Bridget Jones’s Diary a few years earlier – we’ve got the lively, personal voice over from our “protagonist”, an introduction to her quirky coterie of friends and family, and an array of potential lovers. The difference is that Bridget Jones is a great character, full of recognizably down-to-earth character traits and foibles. Although the story is told from her point of view, Laura isn’t a really a character at all – she seems suspiciously like an avatar, a vessel for the sexual fantasies of a guy in the middle of a mid-life crisis, perhaps, for example, a chauvinistic forty-something novelist. (I don’t want to cast aspersions, but hot young women sleeping with much older men is a recurring theme in Viewegh’s work.)
She’s Mid-life Crisis Man’s ideal girlfriend – young, hot, bitchy and very attainable, always showing some toned, tanned midriff, and instantly goes weak at the knees for well paid older guys in creative professions. She is solely defined by her relationships with men, and is cock hungry in the way only a forty-something-year-old man’s fantasy girlfriend can be – when she’s not getting cock, she cannot function in a normal way until she gets it again. Men seem to occupy her every waking thought. Indeed, all the women in this film are reduced to sloppy, raging, drunken messes when they haven’t got a bloke.
Like her friend Ingrid, she does fret about whether a new conquest will wear a condom or not (just to show that she’s not a total slag), but whether he does or not doesn’t seem to be a deal breaker (to show that she’s slutty enough to keep bareback sex on a first date on the table). She’s unencumbered by anything resembling personality, self-awareness, or morals, and will quite happily cheat on her more age-appropriate boyfriend with a much older man, who’s one of those dashing creative types – I wonder who Oliver could represent in this movie?
While From Subway with Love isn’t as deplorable as Andělé všedního dne (Angels of the Everyday) or Účastníci zájezdu (Holiday Makers), it is has a similarly strange slant on sexual relationships, and is just as condescending towards women – I doubt very much that this film passes the Bechdel Test.
Viewegh also takes a dim view of men as well, and has a rather macabre outlook on relationships in general. I’ve heard his work described as “ironic”, but I think “cynical” is a more accurate description – movies based on his films tend to be tawdry affairs, and his arch bitterness cheapens everything it touches.
So, back to that cover art. Was the man drinking a beer, unzipping his fly, or playing paddle ball? Nope, in context of the film’s plot, the larger picture is even creepier –
Yup, the young woman is Laura, wearing a very low cut blouse and gazing seductively at the camera while she kisses a man’s hand. The man, Oliver, is reclining against the wall in a louche manner, reading a book and smoking a fag. He’s loosely linking arms with the Laura’s mother, who we now know slept with Oliver twenty years before her daughter bedded him. The mother is striking a pose, looking longingly back at Oliver. I don’t think I’ve ever used this word in a review before, but it seems appropriate now – ew!
I’m reminded of This is Spinal Tap again, and the follow up to the discussion about the “Smell the Glove” cover art –
David: They said the album cover is a bit sexist.
Nigel: Well, so what? What’s wrong with being sexy?
David: Sex-IST, Nigel.
I suppose there’s a chance that Viewegh thought he was being sexy with Román pro ženy, but no, he’s just being a lecherous old sexist bastard. As usual.
3 thoughts on “From Subway With Love (Román pro ženy) – Filip Renč, 2005”
All those years you live here, and you still haven’t noticed that invented non-words like “sexist” and “chauvinist” aren’t taken seriously in our part of the world. Probably not your fault, though… we are a different culture, after all. Some things just can’t be understood (or appreciated) unless you were born into it. Czech(oslovak) society of 70s and 80s has been very sexual and lustful, buzzing with innuendo, full of spice and weird kinks hidden under a thin guise of decency. Sex was pretty much a national pastime, taken and enjoyed with almost consumerist matter-of-factness. After all, our collectivized schools and workplaces were decidedly co-ed, the ways to keep oneself busy were rare and far between, so…”rocks were f@cking with bricks,” as my friend puts it oh so succinctly. (Incidentally, he’s the same age as Viewegh.)
Do you know why my parents got together? My mom explained once: “Because he was one of the few hippies in Prague who knew how to wear a suit.” Now consider that condoms weren’t readily available back then, and that abortion was frowned upon AND it had to be approved by a committee, and that having a kid was one of the ways to get a state-sponsored apartment really quick. Perhaps that’s why many Czech movie marriages seem to be loveless, as you yourself noticed in your reviews… those poor people are essentially a pair of strangers stuck together in a trap of shared responsibility. I guess half of my generation must’ve been conceived that way. It’s the famous 70s-80s population hike, also known as “Husák’s children”: the last natural population growth in this country.
If you can get your hands on movies “Soukromá vichřice” (1967), “Mladý muž a bílá velryba” (1978) and “Milenci a vrazi” (2004), based on books by Vladimír Páral, you will get a fairly accurate idea what was happening here, and why. Back then, Páral was making fun of it; fifty years later, his works are a valuable testimony of the era. And so is “Čas sluhů” (1989) by Irena Pavlásková, showing the same societal phenomenon through the prism of late 80s, from a distinctly female angle.
Anyway. I admit, I don’t like Viewegh’s work either. Not because of those leftie buzzwords of yours, but because it feels shallow and empty and pretentious. For some weird reason though, ladies seem to love his stories. Specifically, ladies between 30 and 60 (for example, my missus adores Holiday Makers so much, she keeps it ripped on her HDD, readily available for comfort-watching at moment’s notice). So perhaps Viewegh is doing something right, after all. Something we just don’t understand, because we weren’t born into it.
Thanks very much for your insightful comments, and also for the movie recommendations! I am intrigued about Viewegh’s popularity and plan to read some of his stuff, just to see if some subtleties are lost in translation to film adaptations. Whether you want to call it sexism or not (bit dubious about your willingness to write off that term as simply a “leftie buzzword”) one flipside that I appreciate is a frankness about sex in this country compared to the UK where I come from, where people sometimes have a rather prudish, childish outlook. I’m interested in your thoughts on that.
Ahhh, so you’re a guy… No wonder that you don’t find anything chauvinistic in here (and don’t even take this word seriously) – a pretty common trait of men from the Eastern Bloc and Southern countries. But even if you brush it off, the women here are starting to change – and rapidly. Maybe not your generation, but younger is already not like what you’ve described.
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