It has taken two years to reach this point, but this article marks the 50th post on Czech Film Review. Since the first Czech film I saw was Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains, I thought it would be appropriate to mark the occasion by talking about another one of his films, Cutting it Short.
It’s yet another idyllic shaggy dog story based on a Bohumil Hrabal work, a rose-tinted yet ultimately kinky tale about the writer’s parents when they conceived the future literary legend. Set around the end of the First World War and shortly before the establishment of the first Czechoslovak Republic, it is a typically Menzelian joint lovingly satirizing small-town life, populated by a familiar bunch of cranks and oddballs…
The story centres on Francin (Jiří Schmitzer), an earnest accountant who has been hired by the local brewery to get their books in order and take the business to the next level. He sets up home in a spacious apartment on the brewery premises with his free-spirited wife Maryška (Magdaléna Vášáryová, who played the eponymous Marketa Lazarová). She knows the way to a Czech guy’s heart, currying favour with the board of directors by slaughtering a pig and laying on a copious meat feast.
The board is made up of various pillars of the local community played by an impressive roster of great actors, including the inimitable Rudolf Hrušínský (Capricious Summer, Larks on a String) as a stern doctor and Petr Čepek (Adelheid) as the uptight chief of the volunteer fire brigade.
The effervescent Maryška, with her blissed-out demeanour and Rapunzel-like hair, has a discombobulating effect on the notably male population of the film. The couple’s domestic happiness is disrupted by the arrival of Pepin (Jaromír Hanzlík), Francin’s brother who is home from the war. He’s a garrulous and shellshocked young man, probably a little deaf from his time in the trenches. His wartime afflictions are treated lightly and played to comic effect, as he constantly shouts and regales everyone around him with his stream-of-consciousness anecdotes.
Francin is not happy about his brother coming to stay, but the chilled Maryška finds a kindred spirit in Pepin, and their noisy childlike shenanigans cause consternation among the board. Their games result in the film’s best set-piece, when the pair fearlessly scale the brewery chimney, causing panic.
Cutting it Short is one of Menzel’s best-looking films, a sun-dappled dreamland of such simple Czech pleasures as beer, plentiful meat, sex, and glorious nature. Cinematographer Jaromír Šofr’s lens finds its muse in the captivating presence of Maryška. Vášáryová is absolutely radiant in the role, and the strength of her performance almost disguises the fact that she’s not a real character. She’s the incarnation of the Slavic Manic Pixie Dream Wife.
The term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” has received some backlash in recent years, but Maryška certainly fits the archetype. Here’s the definition from the excellent TV Tropes website:
“She’s stunningly attractive, energetic, high on life, full of wacky quirks and idiosyncrasies (generally including childlike playfulness), often with a touch of wild hair dye [for Maryška, read wild, long, untamed hair]. She’s inexplicably obsessed with our stuffed-shirt hero, on whom she will focus her kuh-razy antics until he learns to live freely and love madly.”
In addition to this, she’s like the pre-internet personification of the “perfect girl doesn’t exi…” meme that frequently does the rounds on Slavic life social media groups, adding some very Slavic upticks – she can eat her body weight in pork and chug multiple beers without wrecking her figure. Not only that she seems very sexually attainable and, in the film’s eyebrow-raising conclusion, gets off on being spanked by her husband in front of his bosses.
I think it can be reductive and pointless to frown upon older movies by viewing them through a modern lens. Doing so can be counterproductive to the progressive cause, as it gives conservative types ammo for their standard argument of political correctness gone too far. One of my least favourite modern readings is the backlash against the films of John Hughes, demonizing him for casual racism and inability to write any meaningful roles for BAME actors. Those stereotypes would be unacceptable in a modern mainstream Hollywood movie, but he was a middle-class white boy writing what he knew, resulting in some rather crass representations of other ethnicities.
Having said all that, I found it difficult trying to give the finale of Cutting it Short a pass from a common-sense perspective, and it caused me to re-evaluate all the other Menzel films I’d seen to this point. It made me realize that many of his female characters solely exist as sex kittens there to brighten up the lives and stir the loins of his sadsack, downtrodden or frustrated male protagonists.
Sexual politics aside, Cutting it Short is also rather clunky in shoehorning the title’s multiple meanings into the last ten minutes. The advent of the new-fangled wireless radio cuts short the relay of information from Prague, Brno and further afield; new motorized trucks cut short the delivery times of beer from the brewery; and, in their typically puckish fashion, Maryška and Pepin take it literally and cut short the furniture by sawing off the legs. Lastly, Maryška also cuts her hair, relinquishing her Samson-like powers and her feminine hold over the men, resulting in Francin exerting his masculinity over her with that last-minute spanking.
For those of a progressive mindset, its pervasive sexism might rankle a little too much. However, if you are able to view Cutting it Short without thinking about politics, it will slip down as easily as a few excellent beers on a warm summer’s day.