The Czech New Wave occupied a significant niche in what was called “art house” film in the ‘60s. It developed together with a temporary thaw in the strict Soviet hold over Czech society and a global explosion in politically and artistically activist film movements. The most notable directors – including Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová, Jiří Menzel, and Ivan Passer – shared a broad propensity for stylistic and theoretical innovations that mirrored global trends: breaking down of narrative, a self-aware knowledge of film language, and experiments with nonprofessional acting and less rigidly composed images inspired by the introduction of light-weight documentary equipment.
The filmmakers were daring and courageous in criticizing power structures. Many of the Czech filmmakers flaunted a style of sarcastic and subversive humor endemic to their culture that appealed to the cynicism of the ‘60s. During this short period an alarming number of major and minor masterpieces were produced from the handful of films financed each year. That these movies were financed by the same despotic government they were criticizing only makes them all the more remarkable. Though the movement is well known, its particulars outside the four or five acknowledged “classics” remain little discussed and are rarely screened or released for the general public.
With Loves of a Blonde, Criterion has finally included a Czech New Wave film, one of the “classics,” in their Essential Art House series. (The series is produced in partnership with Janus Films as a low budget no-frills alternative to Criterion’s deluxe packages.) Loves of a Blonde was the breakthrough movie for Miloš Forman, surely the most famous and financially successful of the Czech New Wave directors. Of his Czech films it remains the most successful melding of social observation and political critique.
The story is slight and Forman uses the roominess of his bare plot to explore the nuances of human relations at its center. In the first scene, set in the dorm of a shoe factory, a young woman named Andula (Hana Brejchová) whispers to a friend about her love interests. Her prospects broaden when the factory boss has the idea of giving the girls something to do by inviting a group of soldiers to visit for a dance. The soldiers who arrive, dour middle-aged reservists, are a disappointment.
When the dance is over, Andula is seduced by the band’s handsome young pianist from Prague, Míla (Vladimír Pucholt). They spend the night together. A few days later, Andula, travels to Prague to be with her new boyfriend, only to discover he lives with his nagging parents and that he never expected her to take him up on his offer to visit him in the city. She returns to the factory dorm and tells her friend that she had a wonderful time.
Some may be surprised by how radically the style of Forman’s Czech films differs from the more traditional formal approach of his Hollywood movies. This style is one of his greatest legacies. He uses non-actors in primary roles. The camera often observes the action from a distance. Coupled with long takes and the occasionally hand-held shot, this gives the movies a documentary feel.
Forman had experimented with non-actors with his first feature Audition. He has said, “I find more beauty in unrepeatable faces”. In Loves of a Blonde, he deftly employs a large cast of non-actors with a few prominent professionals who help shape the other performances by hitting the dramatic beats of the scenes. Pucholt, as Míla, use his confidence as an actor to propel his character’s seduction of Andula. The actor Vladimír Mensik, as one of the soldiers, Vacovský, leads a group of bungling soldiers in an attempt to woo Andula’s disinterested friends at the dance.
Where the professional actors give form to the action, the casual delivery and hesitancies of the non-actors give the impression that they are improvising and a certain amount of realism is being captured. Forman and his crew have always insisted that the films were rigidly planned out ahead of time and certain intricately conceived elements, such as a celebrated slapstick sequence at the dance, bear out their claims. However, the use of non-actors gives the film a spontaneity that would be lacking from the use of professionals acting out a narrative. For example, much of the comedy derives from the seemingly natural bumbling of Míla’s parents and the soldiers and officials at the dance. (Forman used many of the same older men to play the incompetent politicians at the center of his next feature, The Fireman’s Ball).
Descendents of Forman’s style are much in vogue today and elements of it can be seen in everything from The Office to the films of directors like Noah Baumbach, Andrew Bujalski, and Corneliu Porumboiu. Like these other works, Forman can be brutal in his depiction of human relations. There is a sense of warmth towards his characters but he is pitiless on their faults. The callow, passive aggressive Míla in particular plays like the progenitor to one of Bujalski or Baumbach’s intelligent, self-absorbed characters.
Though Loves of a Blonde has strong comedic elements, it is hard to label it as such. There is a thick vein of melancholy running throughout. Forman has a tendency to hold a gag to reveal the hurt behind it. At the dance, Vacovský orders a waiter to bring a bottle of wine to Andula’s table. The waiter delivers it to the wrong table, to a group of unattractive girls, and Vacovský orders the waiter to take the bottle away. The camera lingers on the girls faces to register their anger and disappointment.
Forman also reveal layers of understanding behind his characters. The scene where Míla tries to get Andula to sleep with him is uncomfortable to watch. She does not trust him and the hormonal urgency of his desires leads us to believe she shouldn’t. He sees a scar on her arm and she tells him she purposely cut herself from a razor. Shockingly, he uses this bit of information as new ammunition for his seduction. After they sleep together, Forman counters with a sensitive portrait of them lying in bed together, shy and cute and giddy in their nakedness. Though Míla proves to be every bit the jerk that is first suspected, the two scenes capture both the insensitive immaturity and tenderness of young lust.
There is a sympathetic treatment to all of the characters in that even their cruelties are recognizably human. Forman reserves his greatest scorn for the institutions that surround them. This is the unifying thematic connection between all of Forman’s films, through One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The People vs. Larry Flynt. In his informal history of Czech cinema, All the Bright Young Men and Women, Josef Skvorecky quotes Forman on the genesis of Loves of a Blonde: “I think that all that which is noble, and which has remained in art and literature since ancient times…and which is also significant for strong contemporary works of art, has always concerned itself with injuries and injustices perpetrated against the individual”.
Forman’s sympathies most clearly lie with the young women working at the factory. When organizing the dance, the factory managers treat the soldiers and the girls as two institutional blocks that will simply be fit together. In the most openly political scene, the teachers at the factory school chastise them for their behavior around men and force the girls to make a pledge to improve their morals. The scene has the whiff of a Communist shaming session.
Together, the girls are sarcastic toward their elders, but outside the protection of their dorm community, and when alone, they are preyed upon by an uncaring and devious society. (There is a fairy tale aspect to this premise). Music and the telling of stories play an important role in the story; it is used by others as a false seducer and manipulator of emotions. The girls attempt to use these tools as well to influence their surroundings, but it creates a different effect. Forman portrays the musical performances by young women that bookend the film as acts of artistic expression rather than as a way to control unwilling individuals, as in the men’s seductions or the propaganda on the television in Míla’s apartment.
The work of the New Wave directors in Czechoslovakia dropped off precipitously following the Soviet clampdown in 1968. The few daring works of art that were created in the ‘70s tended to be banned before release. This has given the movement a stunted feel, lacking a clear historical continuum like the French New Wave.
Yet, as the inclusion of Loves of a Blonde in this Criterion series shows, it was undoubtedly part of a global “art house” movement whose influences have proceeded to the present. Forman’s early movies are still vibrant and accessible. The film techniques are relevant to those used today. As Skvorecky writes, “Milos in his films approached the desired state where his work speaks both to the man in the street, and the intellectual. I see this as an indisputable sign of an art, which is by no means minor”.