At the very least it will put a big dumb grin on your face, followed by a slight frown as you gaze into the middle distance trying to figure out whether it all adds up or not. Happy End sure beats the hell out of last year’s joyless Tenet, although when it comes to telling a story backwards, it doesn’t quite hit the heights of Memento or Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. Just seeing the bravura way in which Oldřich Lipský flourishes the reverse chronology trick is worth your time alone. Yet it is a stunt that offers a breezy blast of comic relief while exploring the classics of the Czech New Wave. Ultimately that is all Happy End is – a stunt, but a clever and often hilarious one.
As brilliantly as Lipský pulls it off, it does get a little tiring towards the end – or should I say the beginning? My brain kept trying to flip the backwards conversations around to track their normal course, and it made my head hurt after a while. The popular director of quirky classics like Lemonade Joe and Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet had the sense to keep it short and sweet. Happy End clocks in at just 71 minutes and that is definitely a good thing.
Rounding out the main cast is Josef Abrhám as the shameless seducer, Mr Birdie, and formidable comic actress Helena Růžičková as our hero’s long-lost love. She has an innate knack for comic timing reminiscent of Madeline Kahn in those great Lipský-esque American comedies of around the same era – Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and What’s Up Doc? Jaroslava Obermaierová is a good foil for Menšík as his radiant, fragile wife Julie, gliding through the slapstick elements with grace intact, looking like she’s enjoying herself as much as the audience…
Menšík is able to raise a laugh with the barest deadpan flicker on his hangdog face. He has a worldly quality that grounds the material and he is a solid comedy actor too, with a deceptive lightness of foot that plays well in the more physical set pieces. Vladimír Menšík, a familiar face to fans of Czech film and TV, plays our protagonist Bedřich Frydrych and he’s a great fit for such whimsy.
The whole thing is kept in some kind of order by Frydrych’s voice over, which offers an ironic counterpoint to the events on screen. Similarly, the screenplay is so well thought out that, in reverse order, the next line often plays wittily on the meaning of the preceding one. Naturally, we get to enjoy staples of reverse motion comedy such as people un-eating things, sucking up a gob of spit from the ground and performing gravity-defying leaps from impossible positions.
The comic scenes are choreographed in such a way that they look amusing – or sometimes even balletic – when played out backwards. Presented entirely in reverse, the logistics behind making the film watchable as a forward-moving narrative is mind-boggling. Happy End is a dazzling frippery, jaunty and lightweight but no less miraculous in its construction.
That one episode managed to pack in more ideas and entertainment than the entirety of Tenet, despite only costing about as much as one of John David Washington’s slick suits. I have to give an honourable mention to the “Backwards” episode of Red Dwarf. I can’t risk that because I have a deadline to meet. Previous to Tenet, we could also talk about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but the mere mention of its title threatens to send me into a coma.
The unfortunate result of Christopher Nolan’s most recent temporal meddling was to make a two and a half hour movie feel like it was about six hours long. He really soiled the bed with Tenet, trying to orchestrate a Bond-scale action thriller in both forward and reverse motion. He’s a director who can’t stop himself tinkering with time. Nolan’s Memento perhaps did it best, playing out a mystery in reverse while its amnesiac amateur sleuth kept tabs on his clues in regular linear segments. Reversing the order of things has been an experiment that filmmakers have returned to again and again over the years.
How did our doomed couple meet, and what was the story of Bedřich’s former love Anežka (Helena Růžičková)? What went wrong in their marriage to make Julie want to cheat on Bedřich in the first place? How exactly did Julie meet her lover? It would all be fairly straightforward if time ran in the usual direction, but Lipský keeps springing little narrative surprises to keep us guessing. The gimmick works in a way that our protagonist thinks the reverse sequence of events is the natural order of things, reflected in his voice over. As Bedřich realises that his marriage was always destined to fail, he tries to kill Julie in reverse order too – placing a fishbone in her throat to choke on, for example.
Their short-lived marital bliss is rudely interrupted by her lover (Josef Abrhám) flying in through the window to help un-trash the apartment. This leads to a grisly un-murder where Bedřich first assembles and meets his lovely wife Julie (Jaroslava Obermaierová), whose body parts he finds in a suitcase. From his very first “baby” steps after he is born at the guillotine, he is welcomed into a prison where he learns the ways of life before release into the big wide world with great hopes for the future. The queasily re-attached head belongs to Bedřich Frydrych (Vladimír Menšík), a successful butcher and convicted murder of two people.
In honour of the film, I’m planning to write this review in reverse so there will be some minor spoilers before you even reach this point. It isn’t a huge spoiler revealing that because the whole gimmick of Lipský’s black comedy is telling the story backwards, starting with the protagonist’s death and working towards his happy childhood. A severed head is placed into a basket, from where it leaps back onto a set of shoulders, cleanly attached by a rising guillotine blade. Happy End begins with a gruesome image.
Just to save you the time, I had to cheat a bit to make the review somewhat readable in reverse! This article was first published by the Prague Daily Monitor.