Once on a family holiday, we were walking around the side streets of a small Welsh town when we stumbled upon an old bric-a-brac shop that was closed for many years. Among the dusty collection of forlorn objects in the window display sat a vintage doll with braided hair, a straw hat, and a yellowed cotton dress. Her cheeks were webbed with tiny cracks and one of her eyes was missing. With her remaining eye, she gazed out across the universe like a martyr in a medieval painting. A huge dead spider lay curled up in her lap.
That image really troubled my childhood imagination, filled me with a terrible sense of nausea. It is the same feeling I got years later when I first saw Jan Švankmajer’s Jabberwocky, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. His use of musty found objects in his animation, including dolls like the one sitting in that shop window years ago, disturbs me to this day.
Strangely I consider this a good thing, and with this in mind, I thought I’d check out Švankmajer’s final film, Insects. The blurb states that it is based on the play Pictures from the Insects’ Life by Karel and Josef Čapek, although that is a little misleading. The film finds Švankmajer in a playful mood, seemingly determined to do everything apart from shoot a straightforward adaptation of the satirical work.
After a cold open where we see a middle-aged man dressed in bug wings and goggles hurrying along the street, Švankmajer appears before the camera himself to provide a foreword for his new feature. The brothers Čapek wrote the play in 1924 while Hitler was sitting in a pub scheming his terrible schemes and Lenin was building his first gulags. Meanwhile, the Czechs and Slovaks were enjoying their newly founded republic, and people found the Čapek’s play a bit too pessimistic for the times. It was sheer youthful misanthropy, he tells us, and only gained greater relevance as the momentous events of the 20th century unfolded.
All very interesting, you might think, and this foreword certainly whetted my appetite for the adaptation that was to follow. However, that is when Švankmajer goes deliberately off-script, flunking his lines and warning us of the chaos to follow…
I’ve reviewed quite a few older classics recently, so this week I decided to play Random Czech Movie Roulette with some of the newer content on Netflix. I landed on Milan Cieslar’s “romantic comedy” Špindl…
Well, I said from the beginning that my blog would cover all Czech movies, including the bad ones, so here goes…
Anna Polívková stars as Katka, a sad sack singleton in her mid-thirties (something of a recurring role for her) who hates her job and dreams of one day finding Mr Right. I feel a bit sorry for Polívková. Firstly, she is following in the footsteps of her father, Bolek Polívka, one of the greatest living Czech actors. Secondly, she keeps finding herself in lame sex comedies like Špindl and Holiday Makers, or playing second banana to her illustrious dad in terrible sequels like The Inheritance 2. I’m still getting over the scene in Holiday Makers where she lets a 13-year-old boy grope her breasts to help “cure” him of his suspected homosexuality.
Anyway, Katka is down in the dumps and sharing her woes with her two sisters – worldly, tattooed artist Magda (Anita Krausová) and happy-go-lucky model Eliška (Kateřina Klausová). Eliška has a surprise to cheer her up. She has paid for three all-inclusive tickets to the mountain resort of Špindlerův Mlýn for a week of skiing, boozing and picking up guys. Who knows? Maybe one of them could be the Mr Right Katka is hoping for…
Also on his way to the mountains is Tonda (David Gránský), a young musician joining the resort’s resident band headed by Mrkvička, a slovenly middle-aged rocker played by Jakub Kohák, the Czech Republic’s hairiest living celebrity. Tonda hopes that the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle will improve his chances with the ladies, and his new bandmates are all too happy to help out.
On arrival in the resort, the girls meet Lukáš (Roman Blumaier), supposedly the hotel owner whose welcoming spiel announces “Americans have Las Vegas; Czechs have Špindl” – promising a week of fun and frolics that they won’t need to take home with them unless they really want to. Straight away, things take a turn for the worst. The swanky ski lodge Eliška reserved has double-booked, so they have to stay at the shabby Three Mountains hotel nearby instead.
It’s a creaky old place with peeling wallpaper, paper-thin walls and nudie photos on the shared bathroom wall. Despite the setback, they decide to make a go of it and find that they must share the lodgings with the cheerfully inappropriate older couple in the next room and Tonda’s raucous band.
The next hour creeps by with a mixture of pitiful slapstick (Katka has about 700 skiing accidents), awkward gross-out humour (Eliška walks in on an old man masturbating to some vintage porn) and cringe-inducing sexual liaisons (Katka’s ill-advised date with slimy Lukáš had me watching through my fingers like it was a horror movie).
It’s all so painfully weak. It makes the unholy trinity of Michal Viewegh adaptations – Holiday Makers, From Subway with Love, and Angels of Everyday – seem like comedy classics in comparison. At least those movies had a little energy and were strangely entertaining despite their crass sexual politics. Špindl starts weak, with Polívková’s half-hearted Bridget Jones-style voice-over and Chinaski’s weak pop-rock tunes on the soundtrack, and gets progressively weaker as it goes along.
To make matters worse, it is also one of those films that thinks it’s clever by making copious references to much better movies. It has the unfortunate effect of making you wish you were watching those movies instead. Marek Vašut pops up for a scene to quote his sleazy role in From Subway with Love. The cutesy earworm “Sladké mámení” from the snowbound family classic I Enjoy the World with You gets two renditions in the space of five minutes. Later, we get a bizarre Jurassic Park reference when Tonda is chased through a hotel kitchen by a sexually frustrated older woman.
More depressing still is the film’s attitude towards sexual relationships. Like those Viewegh movies, neither sex comes off well. Špindl depicts blokes as scoundrels and cheats who are only after one thing, modern cavemen who can’t make it through five minutes without crudely hitting on a member of the opposite sex. The women are always desperate singles whose brains can’t function properly without a man’s attention, and are willing to sink to their level in the dwindling hope of finding “Mr Right”. When Mr Right finally shows up for Katka, the romantic element comes as an afterthought, in the mid-credit scenes, just before a short skit where a man sprinkles his crab-infested pubes on another guy’s head (spoiler alert). It’s all so tawdry and cynical.
The film’s saving grace is the three performances by Polívková, Krausová and Klausová, who gamely struggle with the unfunny material and somehow emerge with a little dignity intact. Polívková seems like she could be good with a decent script, but so far, I’ve only seen her in terrible movies. I can’t figure out whether she is a genuinely sympathetic screen presence or a screen presence in need of genuine sympathy.
I usually avoid saying people shouldn’t watch a movie because everyone should make up their own minds. Yet Špindl is a romantic comedy so totally lacking both romance and laughs, leaving you with a big empty nihilistic void of a movie. So I’ll conclude by saying this: watch it if you want, but it might put you off sex, skiing and human interactions for a few months at least.
Špindl is showing on Czech Netflix at the time of writing. This article was first published by the Prague Daily Monitor.
Political satire can take many forms, but sometimes all that’s required is some actors, a few tables and chairs, and a patch of woodland. That’s all Jan Němec needed for A Report on the Party and the Guests, his abstract but high impact critique of life under communist rule in Czechoslovakia. It was considered scathing enough that it allegedly had Antonín Novotný, the president at the time, climbing the walls.
The concept of A Report on the Party and the Guests is about as simple as it gets. A group of middle-aged, middle-class lovers are having a picnic in a peaceful glade on a hot summer’s day. There is plenty of food and drink to go around, the weather is warm, and the friends are enjoying each other’s company. After freshening up in a babbling brook, the group are accosted by a shady little man in squeaky shoes – we later find out his name is Rudolf (Jan Klusák) – and his thuggish-looking cohorts.
Rudolf and his gang bundle the picnickers away to a clearing where he subjects them to an impromptu interrogation. The group are separated into men and women and locked up in an imaginary prison marked by a line drawn in the dirt, with two rocks representing a door.
The picnickers uneasily play along with Rudolf’s game for a while, with Josef (Jiří Němec) acting as their spokesperson. Conversely, Karel (Karel Mareš) gets fed up and grumpily storms off, crossing the line of their prison. In response, Rudolf instructs his mob to chase after the escapee and torment him a bit.
The game is interrupted by a suave older gent in a shining white jacket, known only as the Host (Ivan Vyskočil). He apologises for Rudolf’s actions and charms the group, especially the ladies, and invites them to his birthday banquet by the lake. The picnickers are quickly intermingled with the other guests when they are all assigned seating away from each other. Any complaints are forgotten with the plentiful food and drink on offer, and Josef is rewarded for his attempt to parley with a seat at the head table.
As the celebrations progress, it soon becomes apparent that one of the picnickers, a taciturn man who quietly refused to suck up to the Host previously, has discreetly left the party…