Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 8 
29 April
2002

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Vera Chytilova's Pasti, pasti, pasticky (Traps, 1998) CZECH REPUBLIC
Bones, bones, bone-eater...
Věra Chytilová's Pasti, pasti, pastičky (Traps, 1998)

Pasti, pasti, pastičky was largely a disappointment for the critics. Jaromír Blažejovský explains how it fits into Chytilová's oeuvre and prepares viewers for some of the film's "problems."[1]


Věra Chytilová has, perhaps, still not made a film, which someone would not consider misguided, and her post-1989 oeuvre has been judged by the critics almost entirely negatively. "The Czech Republic has lost a film-maker and gained a skilled artisan" called out Ondřej Zach in connection with Dědictví (The Inheritance, 1992).[2] About the director's Pasti, pasti, pastičky (Traps, 1998), Mirka Spáčilová writes of it as "a cheap political satire," "a bitter post-revolution attitude," "break-neck hatred" and "a gushing of hurtful embitterment, attacking the lowest human features, a flagrant socio-critical agitation."[3]

Ondřej Štindl complains of the "chanting of slogan-ridden exclamations," "manner of populist humour" and the "stiff and sporadically redneck humour."[4] Perhaps the artist has radically changed her poetics? And if she hasn't changed it, is her opinion of the world declining?

If we perceive in Věra Chytilová's work something akin to a main thrust, expressing the most relevant things that the filmmaker has at her heart, then the film Pasti, pasti, pastičky—the title reminds of the play on words kosti, kosti, kostižer ("bones, bones, bone-eater") from the film Sedmikrásky (Daisies, 1966)—definitely belongs to this line. Three of the director's most constant themes are involved in Pasti, pasti, pastičky: partner relationships; woman's self-confidence and the meaning of life. (The fourth of Věra Chytilová's main themes is death.)

Organ humour

Vera Chytilova's Pasti, pasti, pasticky (Traps, 1998)Chytilová has always perceived relationships between men and women in her films as being very biological—never sensual—and literally on the basis of the reproductive organs. Love for her does not usually have a romantic shape or form; ironic Chytilová sees only the theatrical, flirtatious ritual and beyond it the straight readiness of the mucous-membrane and the act of the gland. Documentary shots of childbirth, including the birth of the calf, supported the pathos of Hra o jablko (Apple Game, 1976), where the midwife was the heroine. In Pastičky, instead of the female genitalia, the male organs are exposed. The heroine is a veterinary, and there is no lack of shots of copulating animals. However, in place of childbirth we see castration.

As the introduction of the film shows, there is hardly any difference between animal and human intercourse for the director: pigs differ from men only in that during copulation they don't insist on recitations. Unlike the majesty of the womb in Hra o jablko, the testicles are not the subject of respect in Pastičky. On the contrary, they are (together with the associated trouble with erections etc) a source of drastic comedy.

To make similar fun of the reproductive organs of women would be vulgar and cruel. Men's genitals, however, do force a smile as a source of derision. This is what feminine revenge for "phallocracy" looks like, and here we would hear eternal female laughter over the fact that the source of man's power can be something so delicate and imperceptible. Moreover that it is possible, as is seen, to be easily cut off. And it belongs to these boys since they are the rapists. This would sound like the radical feminist interpretation.

Not quite villains

But what kind of rapists are these two, really? The first one does not need to rape women because they offer themselves to him already; the second one is half impotent. The fateful act is played out according to the model "how an idiot becomes a sexual criminal": the MP Dohnal (played by Miroslav Donutil) half cries, half cowers. (I am afraid that in such a desperate psychic condition even King Kong would not have managed an erection.) To gain mastery over the panties of his victim, he uses a tin-opener (a small mistake: after the act the protagonist still has her underwear on), whilst his companion (played by Tomás Hanák) derisively encourages him and ironically soothes his victim.

The director skilfully performs a balancing act over a chasm. The situation is both comic and tragic: the perpetrators complete their horrific crime, but show themselves during the act to be complete buffoons. It has fatal results for the development of the drama. We cannot be sympathetic with the perpetrators. However, we cannot view them as total villains: they are only fools, who, if there had not been the rape, could have perhaps been reasonable men, especially the first one.

By doing this, the director even culminated the problem, because for the audience Lenka's retaliatory action isn't supported enough by sufficiently strong negative emotion against these men. And when the castration takes place and the audience, in fits of horror, compassion and laughter, watches the painful awakening of both friends, the director suddenly switches attention, with a masterly and surprising cut, to Lenka, who on a gloomy morning leaves the scene of the crime (first we think that it is the men who leave) and is crying. We are suddenly taken from the grotesque to tragedy.

The director, however, will not stay there long, because more than the depths of the maiden's despair (expressed unfortunately predominantly only verbally or by the swollen face of the actress Zuzana Stivínová), Chytilová is interested in the picaresque troubles of the eunuchs. This happens because the director has the intention of creating a satirical epic about thuggery, impotence and sterilising the entire ruling classes of today's nouveau riche. Up to this moment the story was integral but in the middle of the film the action breaks into separate stories and situational gags; from the successful ones (most of which feature David Vávra) through to total nonsense (for example, in the ball scene).

The Czech approach

If Věra Chytilová in her films, from Strop (Ceiling, 1962) through to Kopytem sem, kopytem tam (Tainted Horseplay, 1988), guided us around the artificial and decadent activities, through which the individual will not see the substance of his being, contemporary Czech society must logically display to her as a downright ant-hill of inauthentic activity, of false veneer, as having changed direction from sense to nonsense. The director undoubtedly knows that her characters—the millionaire Bach, the feeble ecologist Michal etc—are unreal, exaggerated, paradoxical figures. If this story had been made in Hollywood, it would have taken the form of a thrilling quasi-real court case. The hero would be an honest attorney or investigative journalist, the audience would identify with the characters and would leave the cinema satisfied and proud of American democracy.

Chytilová is, however, a descendant of avant-garde (compare Luis Buñuel's metaphor with the moon in Un chien Andalou with the scene from Pastičky, also lit by the moon, when the incorrigible razor slash of the genitals takes place off-screen), and, moreover, she works in the Czech Republic; thus she doesn't have a happy ending or genuine dramatic characters with their own authentic psychology at hand—only models, signs, symbols (eggs, spheres and balls), verbal allusions (the exclaiming "you bullock," and "you bull" etc) and—as in all of her films—sign-significant design of costumes and interiors.

Thus, an angry socio-critical film has arisen, which is basically a parody of its own genre; a genre that in other cinematography is seriously pursued. Where an ecologically motivated fight should flare up, we follow only the paltriness of Lenka's twopenny fiancé Michal and the Lenka's characterless girlfriend, the journalist Anna. Everything is absurd: business, politics, advertising, protection of the environment, life, love and finally also the entire film itself, since at the end Petr Čtvrtníček from Česká soda, in the role of an inattentive policeman, turns up to announce that: "To je soda" (It's soda).[5]

Everything as usual

We can find much as proof of the stylistic continuity between Pasti, pasti, pastičky and Věra Chytilová's earlier creations: wandering camera movement (this time it is the director's son, Štepán Kučera, who leads the camera with a feeling of the warm colours of autumn), editing gags (the shot of the howling MP whom his high-spirited spouse has seized by the private parts in the bathroom, is cut with a detail of his balls carved up on a board), parallel picture commentary (the television shows Ruml, Klaus, war, the burial of a potentate).[6]

If we think about the satirical and elegant allusions—for example, the quackery of the closing shot showing a billboard "Bach's balls—the sweetest for sucking" with the background of the Hradčany castle district—we can recall that already in the film Strop we heard a Hajaja fairy-tale[7] about the moon which examined the world: "Tady je všechno vpořádku a tady není všechno vpořádku" (Here everything is in order and here everything isn't in order), while the camera knowingly shows the silhouette of Prague Castle. (Note, the same directness is used by the director in her film Hra o jablko). The source of the public's euphoria during the film Hra o jablko were again allusions of the type: "Objective causes, that's what every bordel is called in here."[8]

This means that the satirical temperament of Chytilová didn't have any distinct, any less "populist" quality. Even early in her career, the director used cheap, ambiguous expressions or a crafty joke. The difference lies in the quantity (vaudeville moments, earlier used as spice, predominate today) and also in the suspension of disbelief on the part of the critical community with respect accepting this type of joking.

There is another cause of the differences between the perception of the director's moralities in the 60s and today. Chytilová was always more successful as a provocateur than as a philosopher. Her critical gestures were usually more effective towards the beginning of her career than they have been recently.

In films such as Sedimkrásky (Daisies, 1966) or Ovoce stromů rajských jíme (Fruit of Paradise, 1969) the director could rely on the ambiguity of a metaphor; she offered an artificial world that could be interpreted in various ways. These films couldn't be compromised by connection with an empiric reality.

Vera Chytilova's Panelstory (Prefab Story, 1979)Although Kalamita (Calamity, 1981) or Vlčí bouda (Wolf's Hole, 1985) were clearly readable in terms of film narrative, the films were still constructed as allegories. In the case of the films Faunovo velmi pozdní odpoledne (The Very Late Afternoon of Faun, 1983) and Šašek a královna (The Jester and the Queen, 1987), which are films about death, there was an existential theme lying at the heart of them. Of all Chytilová‘s films, Panelstory (Prefab Story, 1979) is the closest to Pastičky, not only in the number of characters and in the composition of the story but also in the homogeneity of its negative energy. But if the "socialist way of life" was the target of in Panelstory, now Chytilová expresses herself against the capitalist way of life.

It isn't possible to want this essentially non-conformist director to consider any seemingly happy reality (which is far from the one we live in) as the only possible and right one; the director would work very uncomfortably. That's why Chytilová expresses the feelings of social groups that are confronted with the current situation of society. Is it possible that this "social class" aspect conversely also influences the directness, roughness and, if we want, even the "cheap" and "redneck" humour that the director uses?

Today, Věra Chytilová is not perceived as an iconic personality whose work is known only by a narrow group of cineastes. Her personally involved and ever-adventurous attitude has though, I assume, much higher value today than if the director had waved a white flag and created pseudo-independent creations about nothing.

Jaromír Blažejovský

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Translated by Mark Preskett

Also of interest
About the author

Jaromír Blažejovský is a lecturer at the Department of Film and Audio-Visual Culture Studies at Masaryk University in Brno. He publishes in Film a doba and Kino-ikon, among others.


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Footnotes

1. This article was originally published in the Czech film journal Film a doba (Issue 1-2, 1998) under the title "Pasti, kosti, kostižer..." It is republished here (translated by Mark Preskett) with their kind permission.return to text

2. Published in Film a doba 1/93.return to text

3. Mladá fronta Dnes, 17.4.1998.return to text

4. Lidové noviny, 20.4.1998. Kinoeye's review of the film criticises it in similar terms. See Andrew James Horton, Hitchhiking: The perils and the romance", Central Europe Review, Vol 0, No 17.return to text

5. Česká soda is a television show that uses parody and black humour. The expression to je soda translates loosely as "how funny!".return to text

6. Jan Ruml and Václav Klaus are Czech politicians.return to text

7. Hajaja was a character from a radio fairy-tale read by the well-known Czech actor Vlastimil Brodský.return to text

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