Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Sunday Matinee: Loves of a Blonde

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Sunday Matinee: Loves of a Blonde



Loves of a Blonde, Czechoslovakia,1965, dir. Milos Forman, starring Hana Brejchová, Vladimír Pucholt

Story: A young woman sleeps with a charming young pianist; when she pursues him to Prague, she discovers that he did not take their romance as seriously as she did.

The title, like so much else in Milos Forman’s second feature, is gently ironic. With its plural “Loves,” it suggests a worldly figure, a free-spirited sixties girl who rounds up loves, and lovers, with a sense of carefree fun. At the same time, “a Blonde” implies a symbolic woman more than an actual one, probably a silly girl who falls in love and breaks hearts without knowing her own power and/or foolishness. Well, the blonde in Loves of a Blonde, Andula (Hana Brejchová), is rather foolish. And in the course of the movie, she does upset and befuddle at least one boyfriend, by recoiling from him without telling him why. Yet at film’s end, she has had only one real lover, and it was her heart that was broken, not his. Most importantly, Andula is not Julie Christie sent to Prague – not a swinger, but a dreamer, a naïve young woman who is not responding to a new freedom but reacting to a lack thereof. Just as the Prague Spring would flourish for a brief period, before Soviet tanks re-imposed a totalitarian regime for another two decades, so Andula’s season of hope is short. When we last see her, she is back in the factory toiling away, sad and quite alone. Though Loves of a Blonde is a comedy, and a very funny one, at its core is a tragic (albeit still romantic) sense of life.

The film begins with a clever premise rich with comic potential. At the provincial factory where Andula works (living nearby in a very crowded dormitory), women outnumber men nineteen to one. Confronting a military official, the benevolent factory owner begs relief for his working girls: station soldiers near the factory, and a social life will emerge to take the edge off tensions in the area. The typically bungling bureaucracy (much satirized in Forman’s next film, The Fireman’s Ball) responds by sending a regiment to the hinterlands…but it’s a regiment of middle-aged reservists. Still, men are men, and women are women; there’s a dance, and Forman has much fun with a trio of bumbling would-be Romeos who attempt to woo Andula and her friends. Wine is sent to the wrong table and three homely young women are humiliated when the men force the waiter to take it back; later they’ll have their revenge when one of the men loses his wedding ring and it rolls under their table, forcing him to crawl on his hands and knees as they stick their feet in his face and watch water spill down his back.

Only one of the men will end up getting lucky, and it isn’t with Andula or her pals (in fact, it’s with one of those initially rejected girls). Andula, meanwhile, will make love before the night’s over, but her partner is Milda, a member of the band and one of the few young men in the vicinity, though he’s only in town for this particular engagement. A pianist, he proves as adept at playing the young woman as he was at his instrument – overcoming all her resistance with a mixture of ploys, playfulness, and relentless pleading. In this episode there is also comedy: about to crawl into bed, the nude young lovers are interrupted by a curtain that keeps shooting up, even collapsing on Milda as he tries to fix it. Yet there is sadness too; in their first encounter, Andula admits that she slashed her wrists with a razor blade after fighting with her mother. Milda callously feigns interest while entreating her to come upstairs, for him asking about her suicide attempt is just one more tactic to get her in the sack. No wonder Andula hovers hesitantly on the edge of the bed as Milda caresses her – asked what’s wrong, she responds, “I don’t trust you.” Then the carnal embrace obliterates all doubt, and ecstacy gives way to bliss as a post-coital conversation shows the two at their most relaxed and liberated. It’s the happiest moment in the movie.



We can have little doubt that it’s Andula’s happiest moment ever; the rest of the film sees her restless energy without relief. With few options, she is forced to date a young motorcyclist who disappears for a month and then shows up angrily demanding that she wear his ring. At other times, she cuddles in bed with her many roommates, whispering about possible boyfriends and exciting encounters, while a girl in the corner strums a guitar. No wonder that as soon as there’s a break from work, Andula hitchhikes into Prague, following up on Milda’s meangingless invitation to visit him in the city. There she will be confronted by Milda’s nonplussed parents, a bumbling father and a nattering mother. Their down-to-earth practicality and cantankerous way of showing affection (though they probably would not recognize it as such) helps absorb the shock of Andula’s humiliation, but it only goes so far. When Milda comes home drunk, he weaves between coldly denying any knowledge of the girl (by then asleep in his own bed) and buttering her up when he realizes she’s listening. Eventually, his mother forces him to sleep in the bed between her and his father, and a hilarious extended dialogue ensues with the family bickering and yanking the sheet back and forth. Then a cut to Andula, weeping silently at the door, not only because they’re fighting about her but because there’s a warmth to their arguments, a familial closeness that she does not have. The laughter sticks in our throats.

If the comedy comes from the premises and situations, while the tragedy comes from the overall shape of the film (and the quiet, telling moments scattered throughout), then the romanticism lies not in the overarching mood (and the form which achieves this mood). Loves of a Blonde is a sixties gem, a consolidation of British working-class realism, French looseness and warmth, and the recent Italian penchant for a more personalized neorealism. But it contains a cool warmth, a shadowy lightness, that is particularly Czech in its paradoxical beauty – that region has always fused a sense of Germanic/Central European brooding with a free-spirited refinement and playfulness more associated with the western and southern European nations, and its cinema is no exception. This sensibility is best expressed by Forman’s most important collaborator (and one of the key forces behind the Czech New Wave), the cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek. In an astute and evocative essay for the Criterion Collection, Dave Kehr gamely expresses the quality of Ondricek’s work: “The film’s low-contrast lighting infuses all of the locations, as inherently grim as they may be, with a sweetly mysterious softness, as if a principle of compassion existed in the world alongside its cruelty.”

In addition to the subtlety of the love scenes, Ondricek and Forman accomplish a tour-de-force at the sock hop, that ubiquituous touchstone of the sixties New Wave (no matter the country). The scene was shot in documentary fashion, with two cameras operating simultaneously: one focused on the main characters, the other prowling the dance hall collecting random faces, expressions, and gestures. A similar effect is achieved by Forman’s use of both professional and nonprofessional actors. Vladimír Pucholt, who plays Milda, was a big star at the time, but his father was played by cinematographer Ondricek’s uncle, while Forman cast a gregarious woman he met on the trolley as Milda’s mother. Starring as Andula, Hana Brejchová made her film debut, though her sister was already a famous actress (and, incidentally, Forman’s wife). Brejchová projects an unassuming shyness which is perfect for the role, engendering both our sympathy and a kind of reserved distance. This latter quality is important; while we always sympathize with Andula, the film is not limited to her point of view and we can often see where she’s going wrong (and worry for her). Not only here does the film offers up a mixture of subjectivity and objectivity, a quality revealed in the play between expressionist close-ups and impressionistic documentary shots, and also embedded in the screenplay itself.



In that same Criterion essay, Kehr expertly excavates the subtle structure of the film’s seemingly freewheeling, episodic, and immersive narrative:
Loves of a Blonde breaks down into three acts, each of which could stand alone as a short story. …Over the course of the three acts, the film’s context evolves from social satire (set in a public space) to emotional intimacy (confined to the private space of a single room and a single bed) to domestic drama (set in the awkward private-public space of a family apartment). The thematic shifts reflect the shifts in setting: The first section is centered on youth and infinite possibility; the second on young adulthood and romantic fulfillment; the third on maturity and inevitable disappointment. For Forman, Milda’s parents – a pushy, overprotective mother and an indifferent father, collapsed in front of the television – represent the young lovers projected into the future, as the romantic idealism of youth gives way to the glum pragmatism of middle age.”
I part company with Kehr only on that last observation, and not just because I think Forman’s view of the parents is more affectionate than appalled. It also seems to me that characterizing Andula and Milda as “the young lovers [filled with] the romantic idealism of youth” forgets that Milda is, if anything, more cynical than his parents – only able to (briefly) warm up to Andula as a person after he’s conquered her. And I also suspect that the glum pragmatism of Milda’s home, while undoubtedly a disappointment to Andula and a representation of the real world against her her own romantic idealism, is also more than she can probably hope for at this point. We have already heard that she does not get along with her mother, and at any rate, whether at her provincial factory or lost in the big city, she's a long way from home. Listening in on a quarrel, the significant fact is not that they're quarreling, but that she's on the other side of the door, alone. Back in the workshop, or lying about her visit to friends in the dorm, it is not stifling domesticity which threatens her, but rather utter isolation and unhappiness which looms on the horizon.

These themes are reflected not just in the story, but the wall-to-wall music which fills the movie, a mixture of Eastern European swing and sixties pop, much of it delectably hummable. This loosely assembled score wonderfully lubricates the verite photography, loosely improvisational performances, and luminous close-ups, creating an impressionistic mood whose spell we can often fall under. Yet we never forget that these wisps of freedom, beauty, and truth exist within iron constraints, social and personal. The film opens with a delightfully infantile yet catchy ditty, crooned by a tone-deaf young lady, filled with Americanisms like “yeah-yeah-yeah” and “hooligan.” Then, in the last scene, a soft tune is softly strummed on the guitar, a melancholy melody suffusing everything onscreen with a sense of unfulfilled yearning and loneliness. The season of hope is over, and the romanticism embodied in that elegiac tune will probably die soon as well - but while it lasted it was charming, sweet, and perhaps even a little bit funny.

Cross-posted at Wonders in the Dark

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