Saturday, 14 April 2007

Intimate Lighting (Czechoslovakia, 1966, Ivan Passer) and Party and the Guests (Czechoslovakia, 1966, Jan Nemec)

Both films are two of the most highly regarded films to emerge from the Czech New Wave, which briefly became one of the most fertile corners of the film making world during Dubcek’s policy of liberalisation and artistic freedom. However within a few years of the Soviet tanks invading and reforms giving way to Communist orthodoxy, it was all but over. These films also represent the duality of this movement; the former is a whimsical representation of small town Czech life, with no political agenda or influences, and the latter is a stinging satire aimed at the Communist state, whose response to Nemec’s film was to ban it forever. Nemec’s career in his homeland was more or less finished, distrusted by the state and considered a subversive film maker, but the same fate also befell Passer, despite this film being a carefree comedy about the simple pleasures of life. Both left for Western Europe and the United States respectively with mixed results.

Intimate Lighting is set in a small Czech village where music is a major local preoccupation. A very serious and impatient conductor is overseeing a rehearsal for a concert, which is gradually selling well. Bambas, a local resident who plays violin informs the conductor that a guest soloist will be joining them, who soon arrives – it is his old friend Petr, who brings along his pretty girlfriend Stepa (played by the second wife of fellow Czech director Milos Forman, looking something like a Czech Anna Karina). What follows is not so much a conventional narrative, but more a number of gently comic scenes, directed with warmth and empathy by Passer towards his characters. Minor episodes amuse, such as Petr trying to prove his strength to Stepa by gradually increasing the number of bricks he can carry (but he has to call Bambas to take them before he drops them), the family exchanging plates during dinner as they all worry someone doesn’t have enough (and the subsequent throwing of a chicken leg during an argument which spills a glass, to Stepa’s amusement), and a line of men urinating against a wall in unison.

The three men; Petr, Bambas, and his father all exasperate their wives to some degree though, mainly for their neglecting of them because of music. Stepa and Petr argue because she feels she has been ignoring them on their visit, and that he would rather spend time with Bambas than her, and it’s true to some extent, as many of her scenes focus on her walking around alone, frightening cats or speaking to the local village idiot. Yet Passer concentrates on friendship as his major theme in this film; the friendship between two men who have not seen each for many years, and how differently their lives have developed. Bambas is married with three children and lives in this village with his parents, whilst Petr lives in Prague. They reminisce about the past, get drunk, and make an abortive attempt to become itinerant musicians (they fail to get picked up when they hitchhike). A final scene of all drinking eggnog together is a potent symbol of family and fraternity. Passer’s celebration of life and its pleasures is a charming comedy, filled with many small scenes that will raise a smile, and presumably it’s ‘controversy’ resided in the fact that it was not a celebration of Communism. It is strictly free of politics and ideology, much like the early films of Milos Forman.

Nemec’s film on the other hand is a savage satire on conformity and Communism; an absurd allegory of the Bunuel school, both recalling his ‘The Exterminating Angel’ and predating his ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’. A group of seven (including three married couples and a bachelor) have a picnic by a lake, and spend their time eating and engaging in idle and banal conversation. It’s been suggested that Nemec and his co-writer Ester Krumbachova wrote the dialogue in a deliberately meaningless style, so the conversations seem disconnected, with the characters oblivious to what each other are saying. Trying to join another group of people who are on their way to a party, they are intercepted by a strange gentleman, who is then joined by a number of odd men. The apparent ‘leader’ (Rudolf) seems polite and friendly, but exudes a degree of menace, grabbing the arm of one of the group, who then tells the man to mind his own business. The group are then coerced into joining this sinister crowd. Some question, others remain passive. Some question whether they are being imprisoned or whether it’s just a practical joke. When one of the group tries to leave, the henchmen return him.

It emerges that these are guests of the host of the party. He is an affable, much kinder, and more reasonable gentleman, apologetic for the behaviour of Rudolf and his colleagues. Winning the trust of the group who accept the exercise as a practical joke, he invites them to a lavish banquet by the lake. The party begins well, but this all changes when one of the group escapes. The host then becomes less genial, refusing to give a speech, and thinks the guests are making fun of him when they all swap seats when it becomes known that they’re all sitting in the wrong places. When Rudolf offers to find the missing guest, complete with guns and dogs, the group are strangely co-operative towards this idea, and remain behind should he return voluntarily. The film ends on a disturbing note with the simultaneous extinguishing of candles and the violent barking of tracker dogs.

‘Party and the Guests’ has been read as an allegory on Communist state and society, and explores notions such as free will and conformity. The guests’ behaviour when faced with Rudolf and his henchman (who might be perceived as a secret police) changes very quickly from disobedience and questioning, to compliance and passivity. Submitting to the will of the henchman and the host (who resembles Lenin, and recalls any charismatic dictator) is second nature to them. When the Rudolf offers to locate the missing guest, they instantly agree, oblivious to the real meaning and consequences of the search. The barking of the dogs leaves us with no doubt as to what might occur once the dissident is found. Nemec’s theory about the ease of which people become compliant under authoritarianism can be applied wholesale, not just towards Communism. The most politically dangerous film of the Czech New Wave, it was banned forever because it failed each of the three criteria applied to films during this time. Not only was it subversive (despite the director’s protestations), but Nemec was out of favour and it was considered incomprehensible by the authorities. Thankfully, much of the Czech New Wave has been restored and released by the Second Run DVD label, and a significant movement that has been neglected can now reach a new audience. Both films represent different aspects of the Czech New Wave, in its apolitical and actively political states, but both faced the wrath of the authorities who presumably sought a film industry that would churn out propaganda efforts.

1 comment:

Ray said...

I've not seen The Party and the Guests, but Intimate Lighting ranks among my very favorite films. I've seen it twice and been completely charmed by it both times. It is beautifully acted and shot, scripted and paced. Passer came to the U.S. shortly after making this film and has pursued a middling career there, if I'm to judge from the lack of comment on his work by the critics and filmgoers whose opinions I most value. I came across your remarks while trying to find whether a DVD of Intimate Lighting was available.