Color, 1969, 78m.
Directed by Juraj Jakubisko
Philippe Avron, Jirí Sýkora, Magda Vásáryová
Second Run (DVD) (UK R0 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
Coming at the opposite end of the Slovak New Wave as Second Run's previous UK DVD release, The Sun in a Net, this often disorienting, amusing, and shocking offering from director Juraj Jakubsko was banned shortly after its release, with the country still under its recent Soviet invasion.
The protagonist of the film, more or less, is Yorick (Sýkora), an orphan stuck in a state of arrested development at the refuge where he grew up. He and a Polish amateur photographer, Andrzej (Avron), have made a makeshift existence in this ghostly world of dilapidated bedrooms and narrow closets, where birds seem to inhabit every corner. Into their life comes Martha (Marketa Lazarova's Vásáryová), a free-spirited Jewish girl who inspires them to indulge in all kinds of juvenile behavior as a form of denial against the warfare and daily horrors unfolding around them. Silly games, body painting, and other activities pass the time, but the relationship between the three begins to sour when Yorick proposes a solution to Andrzej's virginity. The perilous landscape outside proves far less hospitable as well, with the threesome eventually separated and set on a path to tragedy.
It's tempting to compare this film to some of the other Eastern European New Wave films, especially Daisies, while the institutional setting and willful madness of the characters carries echoes of Philippe de Broca's major hit two years earlier, King of Hearts. (The liner notes call out Jules and Jim, which is sort of appropriate in vague terms but not even close to the way the film unfolds.) However, Jakbusko's approach is distinct from any of those prior films thanks to the sad, desperate nature of the comedy, which teeters between slapstick and unsettling surrealism. There's a fair amount of nudity on display, about as much as 1969 commercial cinema would allow at the time, but its innocent nature probably wouldn't have offending censors in most film-friendly countries. The more difficult content is political as the film clearly doesn't have much use for the violent means used by major countries to mold smaller ones to their will, a gesture made very explicit by the final scene involving liquor, a pivotal statue, and a bridge. You could also classify the last ten minutes as a horror film given the grotesqueries involved, with a couple of nasty visual shocks that seem to come flying out of left field.
A DVD release in its native country with English subtitles didn't give this film much of a chance to find an international audience, but that should be remedied with the 2014 Second Run DVD which lives up to their usual high quality standards. The film has a deliberately rough and gritty look much of the time (with everything from film formats to framing shifting back and forth on purpose) but the appearance here appears to be accurate and, for the most part, extremely impressive. The optional English subtitles appear to be excellent as well for the sole audio option, the mono original language track. The disc sports no video extras but does have a useful liner notes booklet by Peter Hames, who lays out the basics for the often-overlooked history of Slovak cinema, its ultimate fate during the normalization period, and the director's career, which emerged relatively unscathed over the decades. Definitely recommended for anyone with a taste for volatile, adventurous cinema in its purest form.
Reviewed on August 4, 2014.