Věra Chytilová's Ovoce stromů rajských jíme (Fruit of Paradise, 1969) is an audacious combination of allegorical narrative and the avant-garde. Above all, it plays with the idea of searching for "truth" and questions our ability to accept it. It is a reflection on the nature of the film itself, as well as a personal testament of its reputedly "cynical" director's commitment to "telling the truth." It is a vivid testimony to the role of the "avant-garde" in 1960s Czechoslovak cinema. It is an ascendant of what Eisenstein described as "intellectual cinema."
However, montage is more or less dispensed with, in favour of a plethora of visual associations and mental juxtapositions that are orchestrated through a succession of semi-improvised "happenings." As Peter Hames has acknowledged, it boldly defies any "realistic" interpretation, yet encourages "active interpretation," demanding that the viewer construct his or her own meaning.
Like its precursor Sedmikrásky (Daisies, 1966), it is thoroughly "post-modernist" in the sense of the playfulness implied by the term. Yet, contrary to the opinion of its state sponsor, Chytilová's reckless playfulness doesn't invite nihilism. Ovoce stromů rajských jíme may be more obscure than Sedmikrásky, but it remains a resoundingly "mainstream avant-garde" film, a brilliantly executed aesthetic exercise. It is formalism at its most beautiful.
I have not shared the Czechoslovak experience, nor can I share Chytilová's quasi-feminist point of view. Mine, like appreciation of any kind, is an outsider's view.
All the bright young women
As in the case of Sedmikrásky, Ovoce stromů rajských jíme is the result of the interplay of several talents. Ester Krumbachová devised the scenario and collaborated with Chytilová on the final screenplay. She also provided the décor and costume design. Jaroslav Kučera, then Chytilová's husband, developed several of his ideas about color use, not to mention various photographic effects, introduced in his cinematography for Sedmikrásky. In addition to Krumbachová and Kučera, Zdeněk Liška's score structures Chytilová's parable, giving it an operatic quality.
Chytilová originally studied architecture, then philosophy. After a stint as a model, she worked as a script girl in a film studio. Having been refused recommendation, let alone a scholarship, Chytilová obstinately battled her way into FAMU, the Czech film school.
Like Miloš Forman, Chytilová's early work was strongly influenced by cinema verité, though her graduation film Strop (Ceiling, 1963) and the subsequent Pytel blech (A Bagful of Fleas, 1963) were "staged" improvisations with non-actors.
If O něčem jiném (Something Different, 1963) challenged conventional narrative forms of "realism," then Sedmikrásky reconstituted conventional narrative forms entirely. According to Chytilová, Sedmikrásky is a "philosophical documentary in the form of a farce," her strategy is to divert the spectator from emotional involvement, destroy psychology and accentuate humour.
However, it is the aesthetic form of Sedmikrásky that breaks new ground. Jaroslav Kučera deserves credit in this respect: Kučera's talent as a cinematographer became evident in Vojtěch Jasný's Až přijde kocour (Cassandra's Cat, 1963). He also created the grimy aesthetic textures of Němec's remarkable Démanty noci (Diamonds of the Night, 1964).
Krumbachová attended the Academy of Applied Arts and became a costume designer, first in theatre and then in film. According to Josef Škvorecký, her rise was not very smooth, and was interrupted by several falls caused by her excessive outspokenness. Finally she established herself in the Barrandov studios as a costume designer. She embarked on a professional and personal relationship with Němec starting with Démanty noci, and culminating in two seminal collaborations, O slavnosti a hostech (The Party and the Guests, 1966) and Mučedníci lásky (Martyrs of Love, 1967). Krumbachová's first involvement with Chytilová was re-writing Pavel Juráček's script for Sedmikrásky.
Démanty noci, Sedmikrásky, O slavnosti a hostech and Mučedníci lásky all deal with parasites, failures and the persecutions of non-conformists. They are resoundingly negative and obviously undesirable from a Socialist ideological stance.
In 1967, both Sedmikrásky and O slavnosti a hostech were banned from export and the government voted to withhold funds from both Chytilová and Němec so that they would be powerless to realise their "vehicles of nihilism." Chytilová herself was accused of being an elitist, making cynical, uncommitted pessimistic films that were experimental by nature, overvalued by critics and appreciated primarily in the West.
At the height of the so-called "New Wave," 30 feature length films were produced at Barrandov alone. As Forman then pointed out, "We are a little country with 14 million people, and 37 features a year can hardly break even in Czechoslovakia alone. They pay their way by export and foreign exchange and it is the art films that are wanted abroad."
It was this international appeal that attracted the attention of foreign producers. Carlo Ponti produced Forman's Hoří, má panenko (The Firemans' Ball, 1967), and Maurice Ergas co-produced Juraj Jakubisko's Zbehovia a pútnici (The Deserter and the Nomads, 1968).
Following their production of Jerzy Skolimowski's Le Depart (1966), the Belgian Company Elizabeth Films co-produced Ovoce stromů rajských jíme in 1969. It was first shown (and generally misunderstood) at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival.
American critics gave Chytilová the benefit of the doubt, awarding Ovoce stromů rajských jíme the main prize at the 1970 Chicago Film Festival. One critic wrote at the time that it was a
We must not forget that it was Rivette's critical analysis of O něčem jiném in Cahiers du Cinema that did much to boost the foreign appeal of Chytilová's films. However, by 1970 the fashionable appeal of the Czech New Wave had subsided, several of its leading exponents, Forman, Passer and Němec had left or were about to leave Czechoslovakia for more tolerant political climates, and, aside from the home territory, Ovoce stromů rajských jíme was only distributed in France and Belgium.
The credits are beautifully hand-painted in the style of flora, presumably by Krumbachová. The soundtrack brings together three elements: avant-garde vocal "adventures" à la György Ligeti; concrete sounds sourced from the cries of a peacock; and the chimes of a bell.
We are then presented with a remarkable sequence involving the naked bodies of Adam and Eva (Eve in English) used as screens for a sequence of close-ups of flora. In addition, the images are saturated in primary colours. Gradually, images of particular flowers emerge in some sort of sequence, appearing with and without the bodies of Adam and Eva. Here, the soundtrack gives way to a more organised piece, using choral music and a simple percussion arrangement.
The central "panel" of the prologue consists of the couple posed Bosch-like in various tableaux, reminiscent of the visual style of mature films by Paradjanov. Quotations from Genesis are transformed into cantata on the soundtrack, recounting how if the couple eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge, it will result in their death. This is contradicted by the serpent, which is represented by a stylised model coiling around a tree trunk, animated by sudden jerks of the camera, first up and down, then left to right.
Finally, the sequence ends with a medium shot of a beautiful dark-haired girl with pronounced Slavic features folding her hands over her breasts. The image is cast in a predominant yellow, and autumnal leaves are projected onto the girl's skin. This is followed by a long shot of the couple kissing in the stream, accompanied by chants of "tell me the truth" on the soundtrack. The floral patterns reappear before an apple drops out of this veritable tapestry into the hand of Eva, now in recognisable "reality."
Like the opening of Bergman's Persona (1966), the prologue offers a microcosm of the content of the film. Adam and Eva are literally part of a paradise broken by the serpent / devil / liar, descending from the tree of knowledge to Eva's demand for truth. Like Sedmikrásky, Chytilová offers this "straight" exposition from the outset, and the rest of the film is not so much a fiction, but rather an explanation, a description of events.
Visually, the emphasis on colour and texture bears comparison with the American avant-garde of the 1960s. In fact, on a trip to New York in 1967, Kučera described how he found "many points of contact" with filmmakers in the New York Underground scene, especially Ed Emshwiller. By contrast, Chytilová's "organised improvisation" recalls the "happenings" of Ken Jacobs and Jack Smith, the most obvious examples of which would be Flaming Creatures (1963) and Little Stabs at Happiness (1960), though Chytilová's approach is admittedly altogether more "serious."
In search of truth
Ovoce stromů rajských jíme is based on a series of encounters between Eva and Robert. The prologue resonates throughout these encounters. Initially, Robert (dressed in red) is framed stretched snake-like across an overhead branch. Most of the action during the first part of the film surrounds Robert's leather satchel. The satchel first appears discarded in a tree whilst Robert and Eva exchange (admittedly absurd) pleasantries whilst he urinates.
Crucially, this scene takes place next to a stone wall, which Eva has climbed over to pick fruit for Josef. The significance of the wall only becomes clear during the final sequences of the film. In contrast to Robert, Josef is dressed in grey, and his behavior is marked by his perfunctory interest in Eva.
Robert's infidelity is suggested in two sequences. In the first, he receives a scented love-letter that he dismisses as "nothing." The second, however, is contained in a bizarre collective ball game.
Eva attempts to break into Robert's desk, only to find an assortment of fruit, keys, nuts and buttons—a peculiar collection undoubtedly curated by Krumbachová, but also one which would not seem out of place in a Jan Švankmajer film.
The sequence is photographed in close-up using a distorting wide-angle lens. It's subsequently printed in a way that omits alternate frames, producing a cranked-up effect that should be funny, but here it appears to be rather ominous, like the movements of a spider. The sound of footsteps prompts Eva to hide behind the curtains, horror-film style. There she finds the briefcase. Inside the briefcase she finds lace and a pile of rubber stamps. She rolls over, draws up her skirt and stamps her thigh above her garter with the number six in red ink. Combined with the tension of Eva's trespassing, the sequence is perversely erotic, and recalls the most famous scene of Jiří Menzel's Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Observed Trains, 1966).
Back on the beach, we learn that a serial killer is stalking nymphettes, leaving their bodies stamped with a red number six. Eva's search for the "truth" behind Robert has resulted in literally marking herself out as one of his victims. With this brew of a devilish serial killer, a mysterious key and indelible red / blood ink, Krumbachová and Chytilová appear, above anything else, to be alluding to the Blue Beard fairytale.
Courting the father of lies
The final section of the film is a tour-de-force of colour, technique and formalism. Robert chases Eva through a forest. She's wearing a white dress and is wrapped in an enormous red scarf. The sequence takes place at dusk, and again Kučera uses a distorting wide-angle lens and omits frames to give a bizarre comic / disturbing motion effect.
The music is dramatic, and the sequence climaxes with Robert grabbing hold of the scarf and the couple tugging at each end. The resulting image is startling to say the least: an autumnal forest bisected by a band of vibrant red flanked by two posing figures. Eva hides behind a tree, and submits to Robert as he wraps the red scarf around her white dress. She steps out of the scarf in a red dress, pre-empting similar devices employed by Paradjanov in Sayat Nova (The Colour of Pomegranates, 1969).
In the final scene between Eva and Robert, the couple strike highly stylized poses by the lakeside. Robert is destined to kill Eva, despite their love for one another. Robert's final words are "Everything is nothing but a dream. You are a lie." Robert falls at Eva's feet to the sound of a gun shot. She finds both a gun and a rose in the pocket of Robert's coat, which she is wearing.
Hames writes that "apart from suggesting the death of a loved one, this juxtaposition could also be interpreted to mean that the intensity and delusions of romantic love can be resolved only in death." The absurdity of Robert's death—being shot by a gun in Eva's pocket—consolidates his claim that "everything is nothing but a dream," and therefore the truth cannot be found.
Eva runs from the crime scene in red. She frantically attempts to climb over the wall which she climbed over at the beginning of the film, implying her exclusion from the garden / paradise. Eva's red cloak is rhythmically blurred—a technique that anticipates Christopher Doyle's cinematography for Wong Kar-Wai's Chongqing senlin (Chunking Express, 1994) and Duoluo tianshi (Fallen Angels, 1995). The choral chants of "tell me the truth" return from the prologue of the film.
The finale has Eva confronting Josef in a snow-covered field, in front of a large mansion. She cries out: "Don't try to find out the truth, I no longer wish to know." Eva offers the rose in front of the camera lens, and the film ends with another chant from Genesis: "And they knew they were naked, then they heard God, they hid from his eyes, they hid away among the trees of the garden."
The final shot is a somber black and white shot of solarized waving grass. The end credit resumes the floral typography used in the opening credits, though here the plants are stunted and withered. The exclusion from the Garden is, for Chytilová, an event which is not to be celebrated.
Hard to tell the truth?
According to Antonín Liehm, when Strop was screened in France during the mid-1960s, someone stood up after the film and proclaimed: "they shouldn't make that kind of film. It undermines people's faith in Socialism. If that is the way it really is, then none of it is worth it at all." People want to be deluded, for the truth is often unpalatable. In Ovoce stromů rajských jíme, Chytilová's question is this: can we live with the truth? As Liehm says:
Generally speaking, the film is about the unequal struggle between a man and a woman. And over it all is the question of the ability to accept the truth—whether a person would actually be capable of living with the ideals he advocates, capable of deserving them. It is much easier to fight for truth than to live with it. Ester Krumbachová quotes Robinson Jeffers' poem about Ferguson, a fellow who screamed for truth but was in fact incapable of accepting even a glimmer of it.
Strop, O něčem jiném and Sedmikrásky argue that we can only live with the truth. Through a mixture of cinema verité and straight exposition, Chytilová has attempted to unmask illusions and preconceptions, and it's a patronising mistake to assume that her target is "just" aspects of femininity. Her films are often labeled cynical, which, as Liehm points out, is the universal human defense against the truth.
Krumbachová response was simple:
I have often been accused of being a cynic, simply because I refused to believe everything I was told. I think that Hitler showed quite clearly what happens when humanism is replaced by grandiose goals and projects. Concentration camps, the occupation—those were fantastic realities which showed people as they really are. That's why it is no longer possible to get down on your knees and offer up thanks to God. Gods have vanished, and so have the myths and illusions about the goodness of man. But some people remain children; they are incapable of abstraction and confuse symbols with realities. But that's another story.
"A writer's job is to tell the truth," wrote Hemingway, and, as Škvorecký points out, nobody understands that banality so well as people who, because they were denied the freedom of artistic expression for most of their lives, do not find it banal.
Daniel Bird, 14 May 2001
Pure Film: |
The art of Jan Němec
Everything You Always Wanted to Know about My Heart...
Enfant Terrible of
The Free Expression of Spirit
The Life of a Film that Can't be Seen
Can we Live with the Truth?
- Kinoeye Archive of articles on Central and East European cinema
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central and East European cinema through CER
- Return to CER front page