AFED #77: Rozmarné léto [Capricious Summer]; (Czechoslovakia, 1968); Jiří Menzel

What's this, another Czechoslovak film already? Indeed, but I'll make no apologies for my endless fascination with cinema from that corner of Europe and have just come into possession of a pile of films from there, hence my choice.

My journey into Czech cinema didn't really begin until three or four years ago. It could have been different; I'd first encountered Jiří Menzel's debut film, Ostře sledované vlaky [Closely Watched Trains] in 1995 - as part of a season of 100 films the BBC were showing to commemorate the centenary of the moving image - but for whatever reason it failed to impress. Although wry humour pervades, it's stark monochrome felt bleak and depressing and I had no stomach for a coming of age drama that morning I watched it as a nineteen year-old.

So although I've watched dozens of Czechoslovak films since then, I've steered clear of Menzel's work despite its canonic position in the New Wave. Today's film could be seen as an attempt to redress that, but in truth it was a more or less arbitrary choice.

As the title suggests Capricious Summer is a melancholic, ironic little comedy centring around Antonin (Rudolf Hrušínský), a dissolute middle-aged proprietor of some public baths (basically a lagoon) somewhere in provincial Czechoslovakia in the not-too-distant past. Antonin spends his days chewing the fat with his friends, the retired Major Hugo (Vlastimil Brodský) and Canon Roch (František Řehák) and forbearing the imprecations of his attention-starved wife, Kateřina (Míla Myslíková).

The languid lives of these petit bourgoisie are disrupted by the arrival of a traveling funambulist, Arnoštek (played by Menzel himself), who gives them a display of his virtuosity (much to to Kateřina's admiration) and extends an invitation to his show that evening. There Antonin and his friends encounter Anna (Jana Preissová), Arnoštek's beguilingly beautiful young assistant.

Remarkably Anna is reciprocates Antonin's advances and he lures her back to the bathing huts that evening, but although she's seemingly willing Antonin, through either conscience or impotence, is unable to consumate and spends the night massaging her feet. When Kateřina finds them together she's predictably irrate and goes to seek solace in the arms of Arnoštek.

The remainder plays out in the the same dreamy tone of sardonic whimsy and let's just say that by the end normality has been restored, Antonin and his cohorts are a little older and wiser for the experience and the entertainers carry on their way.

It's difficult to imagine a more wistful piece of film-making and at just 74 minutes it doesn't outstay its welcome. Menzel's direction is beautifully paced and nuanced; he has a gift for finding the perfect shot and shot length to evoke the sentiment without drawing attention to his style. Like all of his work it's an adaptation of a novel (by Vladislav Vančura) and Menzel has always considered it a point of principle to remain faithful to his source.

Yet casting himself in the key role of Arnoštek, Menzel leads us to naturally draw parallels with the film-maker's role and that of the tightrope walker. When, later in the film, he falls from his rope the spectators feel less pity than smug satisfaction. It might as easily be an allegory for the ambivalent relationship we have with celebrities to this day.


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