Can someone’s dark secrets ever stay truly buried? That’s the question at the heart of Honeymoon, a dark psychological thriller where director Jan Hřebejk seems to takes a few cues from Lars von Trier in studied, beautifully-acted, elegantly-shot misanthropy.
Much like Trier’s Melancholia from a few years earlier, Honeymoon centres around a wedding party and a bride with her own past psychological issues. Then, much like the former film’s titular planet that ruins festivities by colliding with Earth, a wedding crasher who knows too many inconvenient secrets threatens to destroy the marriage before the ink is dry on the certificate.
We meet Tereza (Anna Geislerová) and Radim (Stanislav Majer), an attractive couple on their big day, taking their vows in a picturesque church before heading out to a sprawling country house for the reception. Before entering the church, Dominik (Matěj Zikán), Radim’s son from a previous marriage, has a mishap with his glasses. Radim takes the boy to the optician across the road to get them fixed. The man behind the counter (Jiří Černý) seems to recognise the groom, but Radim doesn’t appear to notice…
The optician then tags along to the reception uninvited and starts ingratiating himself with the other guests, not least the kids. When questioned, he introduces himself as Jan Benda. The newlyweds have noticed his presence but decide not to cause a scene, especially since he claims to know Radim from school.
As the day wears on and Benda’s behaviour becomes creepier, Tereza finally confronts the interloper and asks him to leave. Sure, he says, but not before she opens his wedding gift…
As with The Teacher a few years later, Hřebejk uses Hollywood psycho-thriller tropes as a framework to explore some troubling themes. How well can you ever really know the person you commit your life to? Is marriage a positive move for a couple, or the first step towards the relationship’s eventual demise? Should a person ever be absolved of their past mistakes, especially if they caused harm to someone else?
Like some of the best American psycho-thrillers, Honeymoon had me squirming in my seat as the plot gradually unfolded and Benda’s motives were gradually revealed. However, he is not a cartoonish psycho villain at all, and the final revelation is shocking and terribly sad. It ends up in the realm of Force Majeure, the merciless black comedy where a newly-revealed facet of a husband’s nature alters his family’s perception of him irrevocably.
Hřebejk is no stranger to working with dark material – this is the guy who successfully made a comedy about hiding a Jewish guy from the Nazis – but this is some of his darkest work. As usual, he takes his time to unpack the challenging themes of Petr Jarchovský’s screenplay and lets his cast get on with putting some terrific performances on film. Meanwhile, cinematographer Martin Strba puts a high gloss on the package with some great camerawork and some lovely magic-hour stuff as the day fades into the evening.
The three main leads of Geislerová, Majer and Černý are all superb, each with moments to shine in a script that would work almost as well as an intimate, three-handed stage play. Geislerová is just about the pick of the trio with her usual combination of brittleness and vulnerability, while Černý, in an understated performance, reveal oceans of sorrow beneath his character’s stooping, shambling, amiable exterior. There is one centrepiece scene between him and Geislerová that is a real showstopper acting-wise as he painfully reveals the secret to the disbelieving bride.
Majer doesn’t seem to have much to do initially. At first glance, Radim appears to be a happy, laidback, handsome guy who is popular with everyone. Yet as his past indiscretions are dragged up, his true character begins to reveal itself.
Of the supporting cast, it is worth mentioning Kristýna Nováková and David Máj as Tereza’s sister Renata and her foolish husband Milan, putting in some very solid supporting work as the couple who provide the new bride with an ominous forewarning about the perils of married life.
Some English-language reviews took issue with how homosexuality is presented in the film, but I thought it was far from the Creepy-Gay-Guy-is-Bad movie that some reviewers seemed to think. Jan Benda is by far the most sympathetic character in the film and the screenplay carefully explores how homophobia is still latent in society. The wedding guests pick up on Benda’s otherness early on, and Renata points out to Tereza that he must be gay due to his mannerisms and the way he talks. However, they initially have no problem with him entertaining the kids while they get to eat and drink and enjoy their day.
Only later on, as the reason for his presence is revealed, do people react negatively and start seeing him as a danger to children, specifically to Radim’s son. That’s when the homophobic slurs start flying as the story powers towards its inevitable confrontation. However, I think fears for the boy’s safety are real and understandable once the true manner of Radim and Benda’s past association is known, and it certainly doesn’t just boil down to: he’s gay so he must be a threat to kids. The casual homophobia of the film’s straight characters is far more layered and nuanced than that.
Honeymoon is a thoughtful and grown-up film, one that might cause some awkward conversations with your other half during the post-movie discussion. It might not be a comfortable watch, but it certainly is a gripping one.
Honeymoon is showing on Czech Netflix at the time of writing. This article was first published by the Prague Daily Monitor.