Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 8 
29 April

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"Now I don't know how to keep on going"
The early films of Věra Chytilová

In Chytilová's early films, there is already clear evidence of the themes that would continue to obsess her, expressed in a unique and remarkable style, as Jiří Cieslar argues.[1]

The early films of Věra Chytilová are personal reports that arose from her own insecurities and preconceptions. These film portraits of three beautiful women—a model, a famous sportswoman and a housewife—raise questions about the meaning of life in a forthright and unusual way, without offering any fixed answers and sparking off a whole series of other questions. Even today they radiate the complicated and difficult issues that appear during life's crises. These films are small opera aperta—open works.

Strop (The Ceiling, 1961) and O něčem jiném (Something Different, 1963) call in to doubt superficial success, surface and illusion, without diminishing them. The questions penetrate deep into the heart of the human condition. "Tell me... what the hell is with the matter with you?" This is a sample question for gymnast Eva Bosáková in O něčem jiném, it is asked by a sports journalist who is disgusted by Bosáková's mediocre answers when this "famous sports personality" takes stock of her career. Life in Eva's weary sentences appears only as phrases and stereotypes, with maybe even some self-deception. The words spin in a circle, like a slow postponement of the right choice, if there is any. But where should we ask for help in the moment of anxiety, where should we find the meaning of our lives life and how should we define it? Where should we get the courage to interfere in our own personal fate? So far, no other film-maker in Czech cinema has asked these question with such alarming power.

The three women's life styles differ greatly, but they are still connected by certain inner insecurities which they become conscious of. Each woman has her own moments of fatigue and impulsiveness. Each of them carries a specific "movement." Marta in Strop routinely crosses a stage, Eva Bosáková in O něčem jiném trains in a gym and Věra, the housewife, with obsessive care, cleans the apparently infinite space of her small flat. From each movement emerges distinctive cinematographic moments with a central question that goes beyond the filmic space—what is the right movement?[2]

A face against the stone

In Strop, Marta the model to a certain extent becomes a victim of her profession, but under her beautiful face and in her attractive body she has still enough intelligence left to accept the trivial nature of her life. The sparkling flow of experiences, short interviews and repetitive rituals suddenly turn into a continuous imprisonment of her faded, self-conscious soul: Marta falls into a consistent, more dissatisfied dumbness while her life is controlled by "someone else's words." In the off-screen–space, male voices ironically comment on the model's gestures, the dressmakers' gossiping, the tittle-tattle of fancy hairdressers, the jokes of flirting students and the pseudo-wisdom of a cynical lover. Nevertheless, something starts moving in Marta—like the champagne in a glass, which an arts student (Josef Abrhám) stirs and mixes with a straw in a bar. The student seems to come from somewhere else. Jaromír Šofr's camerawork unexpectedly moves to an extreme close-up at the bar to catch the ripples in this "drink of life."

A few seconds later, Marta, without a single word, is taken by her arrogant lover to his apartment. They have an argument, and she finds the courage to leave him. Then comes a subtle, but in my opinion, distinctive cinematographic moment:, in the morning, after an aimless nocturnal walk through the streets of Prague, Marta walks along a tree-lined avenue in the Hvězda park, and she goes through a gate in a wall into the light. She looks into the landscape. Her sunlit face almost touches the stone wall with its most delicate textures of coarse surface. The image becomes a metaphor. The face and stone are so close, as if in this natural touch Marta experiences something real or original for the first time, something which the metropolitan life has not had the chance to destroy. A moment of liberation? Who knows. But something has—maybe—opened.

Domestic and public

Marta's existence, long hidden in silence, has a more complicated continuation in the stories in O něčem jiném. The questions about the meaning of life appear in a parallel of two female life stories which never merge but are in the form of a double-narrative structure. However, in the viewer's mind the women are connected in everything that bogs them down or that brings them closer together.

The famous gymnast Eva and an anonymous housewife Věra are looking for the solution to their lives of self-doubt. They are affected by the power of their temperaments and anxieties. This is expressed in sentences that are metaphoric while on the surface being everyday utterances. In addition, these sentences are always "about something different," as the ambiguous film title expresses. Both women meet through these ambiguous statements, expressions of nostalgia and doubts. Věra who is bored and lonely asks herself while she is cleaning her cage-like flat: "What did I want?" She's always tensing up in the hallway or at the door, with no apparent cause.

On the other hand, the famous gymnast Eva has a very clear goal—to complete her sports career. But even she, while in the gym, suddenly says: "I don't know what to do next..." Her public loneliness is different from Věra's in that grateful males are present. The mainly intelligent and physically supple trainer-choreographer Luboš Ogoun reacts to Eva's expressed doubt—"Wait a minute!"—and he persuades her in his own style. Without banalities, with confidence. Of course, after all he is the one who pulls Eva into the borders of her limited aspirations. Both lifestyles, the anonymous and the famous, have two sides.

The anxiety present in O něčem jiném results from a heightened knowledge that both women "compete" in their distant worlds, but with similar questions. Still, Eva's solution is more positive: "Domestic" Věra, after her useless escape from her tedious marriage into a romantic affair, tries to patch up her broken family ties without any clearer hope for betterment. "Public" Eva's life also does not improve appreciably, but she at least tries to pass on to her successors what Mr Ogoun has taught her: an art or a set of skills. Certainly, Eva has not left her space, she does not have any other. But is it not great that she passes on to others part of her talent? Is not the chance to hand something on the centre of her efforts?

Such ideas and questions would be with no effect without an ingenious network of images and sound (with music by Jiří Šlitr and Eva Olmerová). When Luboš Ogoun, always in the centre and above the action, takes out Eva's angry husband-trainer, he walks in a style full of strong movements and meaning, even though the situation is banal on the surface. The same happens in the second story when the unexpectedly betrayed and sometimes uniquely suggestive lover Eva throws herself and her baby into her husband's arms. She cries out, "for goodness sake!" and begs that their marriage be saved. Her movements, gestures and cries are suddenly strong and surprising—she fights with all her strength. This sequence is full of rich cinematographic images of helpless bodies and troubled souls. But what next? Why, and for what?

Eternal themes

Věra Chytilová asks the same questions in her later films as well. This occurs most intensively in the stylized documentary Praha, Neklidné srdce Evropy (Prague, Restless Heart of Europe, 1988). Chytilová's vision is clear in the off-screen commentary, the last words of which are: "Why should we not be heading towards the top of human abilities? We want to be worth something, don't we?"

It seems to me that this pathetic question was present—though hidden—in Chytilova's early films. For example, in Strop in the above-mentioned sequence when Marta watches the landscape with her sunlit face close to the rough stone wall. In these films (Strop and O něčem jiném) everything stems from it being down-to-earth, as if the energy was drawn from live personal experience. Yet it is presented in a sophisticated film style. In my opinion, that is the reason why Strop and O něčem jiném have not lost the unique power of their first impressions. They belong to the core of our visual memory of the 1960s.

Jiří Cieslar

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Translated by Hana Kulhánková

Also of interest
About the author

Jiří Cieslar is the Head of the Film Studies Department at Charles University in Prague. He publishes in Film a doba and Literární noviny, amongst others.

Also by the author

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1. This article was originally published in the Czech film journal Film a doba (Issue 1, 2001). It is republished here (translated by Hana Kulhánková) with their kind permission.return to text

2. Editors note: In his writings, Jirí Cieslar frequently analyses motion and "movement" in cinema in different ways, such as "slowness" in his article "Pomalost" (Filmový zápisník LXIII), where he talks about specific slowness of the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, but also of works such as The Sixth Sense (1999), Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) and American Beauty (1999). return to text

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