Film Reviews

BEAUTY IN TROUBLE

By • Jul 15th, 2008 •

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When I was an undergraduate, I spent several semesters studying the work of the nineteenth century doctor and playwright, Anton Chekhov. One of my professors had a favorite way of expressing Chekhov’s view of his fellow Russians. The prof, taking on a Chekhov persona, would look at the class, smile ruefully, shrug his shoulders and spread his arms to include us all, and say “You live badly, my friends.” This image has stayed with me for decades, I think because it so succinctly summarizes what Chekhov does. He presents his very flawed characters matter-of-factly, with all their comic, tragic, horrific, and vulgar behavior on display. He never suggests that anything can be done to alter their blindness or their foibles, but he offers them to us with the greatest amount of empathy possible. This, I think, is exactly what longtime filmmaking partners Petr Jarchovský and Jan Hřebejk do in Beauty in Trouble.

It’s 2002, and Marcela (Aňa Geislerová) and her family have been devastated by the flooding of Prague. Although they are working people, she and her husband Jarda (Roman Luknár) have no insurance to pay for repairs to their damaged property, they cannot keep up with their mortgage, and they can barely afford to feed their children Lucina and Kuba (Michaela Mrvíková and Adam Mišík) and Jarda’s fervently Christian mother Liba (Emília Vášáryová). In order to make ends meet, and much to Marcela’s dismay, Jarda is running a chop shop for hot cars out of their garage.

In the meantime, Evžen Beneš (Josef Abrhám) a wealthy and dapper expat who now lives in Tuscany has returned to Prague. His mother has just died, and he has come back to check out the old family property he has inherited. The current tenants are a mousy middle-aged woman and her dying mother, whom, Beneš’ shifty lawyer (Jiří Macháček) suggests, should be evicted immediately. But Beneš is a compassionate man, and he allows them to stay, as long as he can use the upstairs apartment when he is in Prague.

A night of wild and noisy lovemaking (we suspect there have been many nights like this, from the weary way in which the children automatically put their fingers in their ears) does not make Marcela forgive her husband his criminal ways. She takes the kids and goes off to her mom’s. But Zdena (Jana Brejchová) lives in a cramped apartment with her deceptively soft spoken, diabetic husband Richard (Jiří Schmitzer). It isn’t long before “Uncle Risa” is targeting the children with subtle psychological warfare, and leering, slimy near-abuse.

These two stories come together when Jarda is arrested for stealing Beneš’ car and Marcela and Beneš meet at the police station. They become friendly; he is charmed by her beauty and her inquisitiveness, she by this much older man’s good looks, wisdom, and kindness. He offers his Prague apartment to her and her children, providing an escape from the menacing Uncle. Their friendship becomes something more—and something more sedate than Marcela’s previous relationship, since these two make love behind closed doors and the children don’t even wake up, let alone put their fingers in their ears.
The script is extremely well crafted and the way the stories intertwine is clever (it turns out that the brother of Beneš’ tenant, is also the minister to Jarda’s mother), but what make this film engaging are the multi-dimensional characters and the complex ways in which they interact. Marcela is a beautiful girl who deserves better for her children, but she also knows how to capitalize on her sexuality—and face it, she’s a bit of a shrew to both her husband and her mother. Jarda’s mother Liba is so dazzled by God that when she comes into money that she might use to get her son out of jail, she instead hands it over to her hypocritical minister. Zdena, beneficent and loving in opening her home to her daughter and grandchildren, is, disturbingly, in complete denial of her husband’s nasty tendencies (and one strongly suspects that Risa probably abused Marcela when she was a little girl). And Risa himself is not entirely unsympathetic, sick and bitter about what the Soviets did to his country, the man is stick skinny and only owns one shirt.

Marcela and her kids go off to Tuscany with Beneš, but when Jarda gets out of jail there is an inevitable family reunion. She sleeps with Jarda—they still have chemistry. She returns to Tuscany with Beneš and the children at the end of the film, but it’s not clear that she’ll stay with him.

As a viewer, I was initially worried for Beneš, even though he’s the only rich guy in the film, he is also the only thoroughly nice guy in the film and I was afraid Marcela could really hurt him. But this great subplot put my mind at rest. His tenant, her brother, and the lawyer come up with a clever way to extort money out of Beneš. It seems that when his family’s land was returned after the fall of communism, his front yard and his driveway were not part of the restitution package, and so these extortionists find this out and buy up the lot, with the intention of selling it back to Beneš at a ridiculously inflated rate. They’re sure they have him; he’s been a chump all along, falling for all their plays for sympathy. And he meets with them and tells them that in fact they can keep the front yard, build a barbecue in it, and roast weenies until they die, he is not going to pay them a penny more than they paid for the land, and he also isn’t going to pay his so-called lawyer his fee. So I think it’s Marcela who’d better be careful; Beneš will be nice for as long as the game suits him, but nobody is going to make a fool out of him.

The actors in this film give such specificity to all of the characters. I’m not very familiar with Czech cinema, but all of the adult principles have a long history in it (and many of them have had illustrious stage careers as well). I am also unfamiliar with the previous films of Petr Jarchovský and Jan Hřebejk, now in their early forties, who have been working together since they were in middle school. Now that I have seen this I’d love to see Up and Down, Divided We Fall, and Cozy Dens, to name a few of their films.

The press kit reads like an operations manual that was written in—well, Czech, maybe?–and then given a literal translation into English. I wish I knew another language even half as well as this translator does; still it’s hard not to be amused when one reads remarks such as these:

“Such a generational casting of two strong personalities can be tricky, as known
in the saying about the two roosters on the dump.” –From the interview with the producer Ondřej Trojan

Or

“Now, half an hour after the projection, the movie is decomposing, I am just beginning to assimilate it.” From an interview with actor Jan Hrušínský (Havlík)

Still the press kit did provide food for thought. The story for this film is based on a poem by Robert Graves called “Beauty in Trouble.” It’s worth looking up. Although the poem contains only twenty-eight short lines, it’s obviously the backbone for the film. The poem was translated into Czech and became a popular song in the eighties. In the film Beauty in Trouble that song is sung by the popular Czech singer Radůza. Initially Radůza’s songs were supposed to be used throughout of the soundtrack of the film. In the finished version, she appears as a character (singing to the prisoners when Jarda is in jail), but her songs are used discreetly. According to Jan Hřebejk when they used Radůza’s music as background music, test audiences thought that the filmmakers were trying to give the Beauty character some sort of inner life through the music, because Radůza sings in Czech and she is female. That was not what they wanted, so instead they employed the songs of Glen Hansard, vocalist for the Irish rock group The Frames. He’s male and sings in English, which gave the background score the kind of contrast and detachment from the lead character that they sought. Glen Hansard also played the lead in, and won an Academy award for a song in, the movie Once, so if that film moved you, as it did me, the emotional overtones of Hansard’s music will infuse your experience of this one.

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