There is an old Les Dawson joke that goes like this: I said to the chemist, “Can I have some sleeping pills for my wife?” He said, “Why?” I said, “She keeps waking up.”
That is pretty much the attitude of the main character in Tiger Theory, Radek Bajgar’s dramedy about a sixty-something who finds an unconventional way of leaving his controlling wife.
Jan Berger (Jiří Bartoška) is a veterinarian. We first meet him as performs the snip on a tomcat, much to the gratitude of its female owner. It’s a none-too-subtle metaphor for the film’s central thesis, in that most of the male characters feel emasculated by their wives. The only guy who doesn’t has a problem with his sperm and possibly gets cheated on by his free-spirited wife, implying he’s not man enough to get the job done.
The film sets out its stall early, with Berger’s wife Olga (Eliška Balzerová) delivering a lecture to a group of students about the life expectancy of men. They drink more, smoke more and eat unhealthily, all of which affects their longevity. And it is the woman’s lot to keep control of their man’s worst impulses, she asserts.
For the men in Tiger Theory, this equates to endless nagging…
Berger seems quite content, but his attitude changes after his father-in-law dies. The old man always wanted his ashes scattered in the river, but Olga and his mother-in-law change the plan, burying him in a nearby churchyard instead. Berger suddenly realises that his wife is just as controlling as his mother-in-law, and he doesn’t get enough time to do as he pleases.
Deciding that his wife wouldn’t be able to handle a divorce, he takes inspiration from an ageing parrot (it makes more sense in the film) to feign Alzheimer’s so she’ll maybe get off his back a bit. It works fine for a while, and Berger enjoys his days cycling around the countryside, drinking and smoking.
Olga wants to assert her control over his alleged illness as much as she did other aspects of his life while he was healthy. The situation escalates, resulting in Berger secretly paying for admittance to a mental hospital. Once safely admitted, Berger does a runner and heads for the countryside, where he leads a simple hobo-like existence free from the influence of his wife.
Tiger Theory has some interesting things to say about this dichotomy between men who just want to be left alone to be men and the women they’ve hitched their lives to. The problem is, there isn’t much in the way of balance to this battle of the sexes. Berger is allowed to be a good-natured scamp, camping and going fishing on the river with his laid-back son and henpecked son-in-law. Meanwhile, his wife and daughter – both control freaks in the mould of the family’s matriarch – are portrayed as little more than a pair of scowling killjoys.
This is a shame because much of the material is handled very thoughtfully by first-time director Bajgar and his seasoned cast. Sometimes when I’m watching a Czech film, I come to a scene where I think, “How would a Hollywood movie handle this?” If Tiger Theory was made in Hollywood, it would probably star Steve Carell as a younger guy pretending to suffer from early-onset dementia. There would be the obligatory montage sequence where he buys some inappropriately younger clothing, trades in his sensible family vehicle for a sports car, does his back in playing squash, gets drunk and does something mildly illegal with his buddies, and checks out some hot young women while running on the treadmill in a gym.
In Tiger Theory, everything that a Hollywood movie would try to shortcut with a montage is covered by one change of expression on Bartoška’s face, and it is masterful stuff from the actor. Berger has gone on a cycling trip and as evening falls, he stops in a beer garden for a well-earned pint. He approaches a group of people sitting around an open fire, drinking and having a sing-a-long. One attractive young woman notices him, smiles, and shuffles up so he can join them. Berger smiles bashfully and shakes his head. His smile fades and there is a sudden sadness in his eyes. He would clearly love to join them and maybe chat up the woman, but at that moment he realises that he doesn’t belong.
Bartoška is so watchable as Berger that the film suffers whenever he’s not onscreen. He’s also so charming that we almost forget how callous his plan is – pretending to have a brain disease to get a bit of peace from his wife of 40 years. Olga is quite controlling but she doesn’t seem so awful that she deserves such dishonestly, and the film lets him get away with it. He gets his wish while Olga… well, she gets to keep the house at least…
Life is full of joys and frustrations and is over far too quickly, so no-one should stay in a relationship if it makes them unhappy. It’s quite unusual to find a film that says that outright, then also have the courage of its convictions to show the character finding contentment alone rather than with a partner. That’s all good, but I wish Tiger Theory spent a little more time giving us the wives’ perspective too. Instead, it just shows them as a bunch of ball-busting stereotypes that could have served as inspiration for a whole set of Les Dawson jokes.
Tiger Theory (Teorie Tygra) is showing on Czech Netflix at the time of writing. This review was originally published by the Prague Daily Monitor.