Coping With a Monstrous Groom, Trash-Throwing Stepfather

Review of Films: “Honeymoon” and “Beauty in Trouble”

By Nathan Roberts

Teresa sits next to Radim, her muscular new husband, under a wooden patio in the lush Bohemian countryside. Her flowery dress blows in a lingering breeze, her light red hair shimmering beneath the midafternoon sun. Yet as the couple’s conversation transforms into an escalating argument, this pleasant image grows progressively disturbing. Vindictively ignoring her protruding baby bump, Tereza guzzles vodka straight from a glass bottle with increasing ease, daring Radim to intervene for the sake of their child: “What are you going to do, hit me?” she snaps at him.

While prenatal negligence is alarming, we sympathize with her plight all the same; after all, how would you react if you married a seemingly kind, caring man, only to discover that this person had committed acts of horrifying abuse? You might be tempted to take up a bottle, too.

This question lies at the heart of “Honeymoon,” the new film by veteran Czech director Jan Hrebejk and his long-term writing partner Petr Jarchovsky.

Hrebejk, who won Best Director for “Honeymoon” at the 2013 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, skillfully turns the typical wedding photography aesthetic—think sweeping green fields, reflective ponds, open verandas and lens-flare-graced evening glows—on its picturesque head, challenging the notion of romantic commitment when repressed sins erupt into the present.  Hrebejk and Jarchovsky explore complex problems: homophobia, relational deadlock, and the fine line between forgiveness and repression.

The newlyweds and their extended family pose at the reception. media.tiff.net/

The troubled newlyweds and family pose at the reception.
Photo courtesy of media.tiff.net.

The tension begins from the films opening shots, when a quiet, strange man calling himself Jan Benda (played by Jiri Cerny) arrives uninvited to Tereza (Anna Geislerova) and Radim’s wedding reception. Despite his amiable attitude, Jan seems to be on the verge of a vengeful eruption himself. His version of  “small talk” involves musing on Hitler’s pleasant childhood; when Jan walks in on a young boy holding a plastic bag on his sister’s head, he quickly thrusts the bag back on the boy’s head until the child cries out in breathless agony. Repressed psychological baggage is clearly bubbling to the surface and Hrejbeck’s observational camera makes us wonder: is Jan merely strange, a psychopath, a child molester, or a misunderstood hero?

Halfway through the film, Jan finally admits a frightening revelation that completely destroys the couple’s romantic preconceptions of each other. For your courtesy, I won’t give away this important revelation. But although this plot twist is essential, the newlywed’s later attempts to cope with this shocking confession fuel the most disturbing and acutely written segments in “Honeymoon.”

From the infamous finale of “The Graduate” to Lars Von Trier’s apocalyptic “Melancholia,” modern wedding films often explore the gap between romantic idealism and darker psychological realities that lurk in its shadow. However, what distinguishes “Honeymoon” from these films is its understated tone, its lack of hysteria or hyperbole (at least, until its operatic finale), an approach central to Czech filmmaking, and perhaps, to the Czech national character.

From the early 1960s, Czech artists have proudly bared their allergy to formulaic Hollywood narratives and hackneyed archetypes. Frustrated by the didactic, clichéd tropes of “socialist realism,” films brashly demonstrating how all problems could be solved through hard work and a collectivist attitude, their discontentment spawned a wave of daring films that looked at the human condition—in all of its hardship and ethical complexity—with quiet, shaded nuance. And after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, those schooled in the 1960s heyday of Czech filmmaking, like Hrejbeck, a 1991 graduate of the Film and TV School of Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, emerged to focus on tales of moral ambiguity.

In “Honeymoon,” the newlyweds are forced into relational turmoil because Radim treats his past wrongs with a disquietingly guiltless and banal complacency. How can Tereza forgive a man who doesn’t even understand the depth of evil he’s perpetrated? This psychological roadblock is cleverly echoed through Jarchovsky’s comic relief: Tereza’s brother-in-law, a sloppy, pudgy, self-deluded alcoholic who believes himself to be a “wine connoisseur,” oblivious to how his drinking hurts his family.

Unfortunately, this question isn’t explored thoroughly because the film is too preoccupied tinkering with our hazy perceptions of Jan, all the way until its unnecessarily graphic conclusion. This ambiguity makes the climax of “Honeymoon” superbly intense.  Unfortunately, Hrejbeck and Jarchovsky fail to channel this dramatic ambivalence into a satisfying conclusion. This audience member, for one, felt unnecessarily manipulated. If the last twenty minutes of “Honeymoon” don’t detract from its early moral exploration, this dramatic flat-footedness certainly taints its total impact.

“Far less melodramatic and plot-driven than ‘Honeymoon,’ ‘Beauty’ is a lingering slice of everyday life with richly developed characters.”

Hrebejk and Jarchovsky explore the implications of marital commitments, wrongdoing, and family life to a much more satisfying degree in their 2006 tragicomedy “Beauty In Trouble.” While the film lacks hard-hitting “big issues” that fuel “Honeymoon,” “Beauty” capitalizes on Jarchovsky’s rich, perceptive script. The film centers on Marcela (Anna Geislerová, again) trying to choose between her sexually vivacious husband, Jarda, and a kindly older gentleman who takes her under his wing when Jarda is imprisoned for car thievery. Far less melodramatic and plot-driven than “Honeymoon,” “Beauty” is a lingering slice of everyday life with richly developed characters.

A standout is Marcela’s stepfather, Richard, whose volatility and perversion are countered by his striking intelligence. He’s the sort of person who, on a wild-eyed impulse, will giddily dump a full trash bin on Marcela’s bed while eloquently insisting that her family pick up around the house. Richard may be the most unpleasant person in the room, but he’s always the smartest person in the room—and he knows it.

In fact, “Beauty and Trouble” works as a satisfying, if more meandering and restrained, counterpoint to 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook.” In both films, characters continually teeter between selfishness and selflessness, kindness and exploitation, and usually end up somewhere in the middle. These are conflicted, lively people with troubled pasts and uncertain futures, always searching for fulfillment. Nobody is entirely loveable nor entirely detestable, yet everyone is completely memorable. In short: they feel like real people.

Marcela is ambivalent about her husband, Jarda. graphsics8.nytimes.com/images

Marcela experiences post-coital ambivalence with Jarda in “Beauty in Trouble.”
Photo courtesy of graphsics8.nytimes.com/images.

With Marcela at its center, “Beauty In Trouble” also taps into Anna Geislerova’s full acting potential. Although Geislerova, one of the Czech Republic’s most famous actresses, dutifully emotes in “Honeymoon,” “Beauty in Trouble” gives her a broader range of emotions to explore. Geislerova demonstrates a method-like capacity for navigating Marcela’s complex and contradictory emotions, brilliantly modulating with the quiet intensity of Jessica Chastain, a fellow red-headed beauty. Both actresses have the uncanny ability to embody “internal processors”: characters who seem to absorb their surroundings and harbor a turbulent mix of pathos and intelligence deep within. Even when they act foolishly, they gain our sympathy with startling ease.

“Honeymoon” recently played at the Toronto International Film Festival and, depending on its performance, may gain further festival play or even limited distribution in the United States. If you have a few hours and a tolerance for difficult subject matter (including some traumatic sexual abuse), “Honeymoon” is certainly not a complete waste of time. Its ethical challenges are relevant, deeply felt, and worthy of consideration. If you’re in Prague, information about showtimes can be found here. Be sure to research each individual theater to ensure they have English subtitles.

However, if you wish to venture into modern Czech cinema closer to the realm of everyday struggles and ambiguities, “Beauty In Trouble” is a fabulous place to start. The film is available on DVD in the United States and streaming on Fandor.

Nathan Roberts is in the NYU Gallatin Class of 2015. For more of his writing, go to nathandroberts.com. His hometown is San Antonio, Texas.

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Categories: Culture, Fall 2013 Issue Number 1

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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