Chytilová's latest tale of moral decay has confounded critics with its deliberate contrasting of acting styles and its mixed levels of reality, as Dora Viceníková explains.
The uncompromising director Věra Chytilová, well-known for her harshly mocking attacks on people's failings and foibles, has created a new filmic parable on human weakness with Vyhnání z ráje (Expulsion from Paradise, 2001), her most recent film. Although fully within the Chytilová tradition of biting moral fable, the film has had a lukewarm reception from Czech and international critics.
The main story of Vyhnání z ráje concerns Rosta, a film director (Bolek Polívka), who is shooting a film at a nudist beach. Everyone in the film crew has different ideas about the genre and style of the film being shot: The director tries to create an artistic work, an experimental metaphor about Adam and Eve; the Russian producer Igor (Milan Šteindler) hopes to see an erotic lovestory produced; and the screenwriter (played by theatre director and dramatist J A Pitínský) aims to express his positive philosophy about humanity through the film.
The fictive film within the film is called Paradiso, but it seems more like a hell than paradise. Monstrous naked bodies lie on the beach as if in a tableau from the apocalypse. We watch the director in a state of personal crisis. He experiences misunderstandings with his wife (played by French actress and Polívka's ex-wife Chantal Poullain) and also complications in the relationship with his lover (who is the daughter of Paradiso's producer and also happens to be the film's lead actress). The respective stories of each character in Vyhnání z ráje do not add up to a coherent unit but rather make up a mosaic that Chytilová uses to create a picture of moral decline.
Document and stylization
Chytilová combines two stylistic tendencies which had already appeared at the beginning of her film career: the style of cinéma vérité, which we can see in the films Strop (Ceiling, 1962), Pytel blech (A Bag of Fleas, 1962), O něčem jiném (Something different, 1963), and symbolization, used in such film as Sedmikrásky (Daisies, 1966) and Ovoce stromů rajských jíme (Fruit of Paradise, 1969). Cinéma vérité tends to make an authentic record of reality through hand camera, amateur actors, shooting in exteriors or fragmentation of storytelling. Such films tend to be objective and sociological.
The symbolist trend, on the other hand, prefers exposing human subjects, intimate dreams through stylization of the image, and working with signs and signifiers. The creators who prefer this tendency expose metaphysical aspects of human nature; they ask moral and philosophical questions. The films are allegoric, without connections to concrete reality. They are often situated in archetypal spaces, which cannot be tied down to a specific location (woods, a village, etc).
In Vyhnání z ráje these two tendencies are brought together. The film balances the direct reproduction of reality (documentary-style recording of the shooting of Paradiso) and high stylization (some of the images resemble the pictures of Peter Breughel, especially the mass of women's bodies lying on the sand).
Chytilová constantly discovers animalism and carnality in her characters. By consistently and unmercifully showing human bodies with unpleasant ugliness, she reduces the human crowd to a mass of aging and ungainly body forms. The youth and beauty, which are also in attendance, are removed from any erotic or sensuous connotations. Massive female figures eclipse male carnality and male heroism is ludicrous. Malice and aggression degrade human beings down to the level of instincts, and it is, perhaps, only children that are capable of sympathy and understanding.
A meeting of Brecht and Stanislavsky
The form of "film within a film" offers to Rosta, as Paradiso's director, a privileged position—that of the main manipulator. He is at the center of the narrative, but the usual picture of creative crisis in films about films is somewhat problematic here. His feelings about the limitations of his collaborators, misunderstandings with his wife and his own inner crisis are unconvincing. Polívka's expansive acting, with a permanently detached position and ironic smile, creates an uncrossable distance between the character of the director (and also a fictive role of doctor whom Rosta plays in the film Paradiso) and the narration.
Polívka does not distinguish the two different parts he plays. From the very beginning it is very hard to realize what role he is in at any given moment. Both of the worlds—the world of the fictive film and also the main film—are closely connected, and only through the alienating effects (such as the appearance onscreen of a camera, clapperboard or cameraman, or by someone calling to him "Mr Director") can the viewer know which world they are watching.
The resultant effect of Polívka's acting oscillates between shallowness, ironic play and sincerity. Polívka as Rosta sparks off some scenes that are highly emotionally charged, especially ones involving matrimonial quarrels. These scenes resemble a confluence of the methods of Stanislavsky and Brecht. The "real" hysteria of Chantal Poullain (using the Stanislavsky method) achieves an unintentional comic effect, while in the background the ironic face of Polívka (employing the principle of Brecht's theatre) is continually present. The constant balance between seriousness and affectation and between filmic fiction and reality is intentionally confusing.
Noble themes in shallow narrative
The changes in filmic narration with the structure of film within a film (and finally with a dream sequence) creates from Vyhnání z ráje an unstable substance, which slips between the fingers of the viewer and prevents them from identification or immersion to a narrative. When the viewer loses their alertness for a short moment (for example, when feeling touched by the death of a horse used in Paradiso towards the end of the film), they are quickly caught out and their mercy is lampooned. The viewer is overwhelmed by manipulation, as are the naked actors.
In the end, the director loses his privileged position of manipulator and becomes a victim. He is caught in his own cruel game, he is guilty of the death of another man. The end of the film is quite unclear and inconsistent. The "ordinary" film about the film talks about the limitations and difficulties in the creative, artistic process, but here Chytilová laughs at Rosta's creation. Instead of art, a grotesque mockery is presented. Through this allegory Chytilová talks about our society, about the time in which we are living. She builds her testimony on themes such as freedom and morality when the parallel thematic line expresses the ordeal of creating art.
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