Vol 0, No 15
4 January 1999
K I N O E Y E:|
That Discreet Charm of the Czech Bourgeoisie
Petr Zelenka's Knoflikari
Andrew J Horton
Of the six Czech films shown at the 42nd London Film Festival, only one, it is sad to say, would seem to have a commercial future. Petr Zelenka's Knoflikari (Buttoners, 1997) describes itself as "a film as crazy as the whole of the twentieth century" and its tightly knit stories of love and death under the capricious rule of chance have already taken the festivals at Karlovy Vary and Rotterdam by storm. Having had two showings at the London Film Festival and a further screening at London's Riverside Studios as part of the Czech Film Season, the film is now poised for general release in the UK.
Knoflikari is quite a difficult to explain. For a start the title is a bit of the mystery and it appears that the Czechs think that the English word "buttoners" is a synonym of "twerps" and the Czech title, Knoflikari, preserves the button origins of this supposed English word. Czechs have, therefore, been very disconcerted to find out that the title is more or less meaningless in English and does not take on the intended significance (some Czech Websites still translate the film as Twerps anyway).
Such warping of logic, however, does not seem entirely out of place for a film which is about how the weather can save your life, the pros and cons of sex in the back of a taxi, the rituals of civilisation, a secret perversion which utilises a pair of false teeth, sperm in space and a ghost searching for forgiveness. The film's extravagant claims as to its own craziness belie a subtlety and restraint in the humour and even obvious factual descriptions, such as noting that the film being divided into six short stories, are prone to be somewhat misleading and one-sided. By the time you are on the third story, you realise that each of the six different plots is being played out in all the film's parts. In fact, the very charm of the film comes from its tight plotting. Individually the six stories are nothing but endearing vignettes of the peculiarities of social mores, with the full impact of the film being reserved for it as a whole.
Zelenka shows us locked in a grid of chance, where death can only be viewed as comic. The effect is all very much like one of those world record breaking attempts to topple the most number of dominoes, with one small push setting off a spectacle far out of proportion to the to the tiny level amount of energy consumed to start the process.
A little too much form?
However, Zelenka's preoccupation with the form of the film of the film is also his undoing. He is very careful to strike a balance between the social groups he parodies: the young and the old, the middle class and the working class. I myself couldn't see this balance adding anything to the film and if anything it merely distracted Zelenka from the areas in which he is at his sharpest: lampooning the bourgeoisie. It is not without reason that critics have compared Knoflikari to the late films of Spanish surrealist and one-time collaborator with Salvador Dali - Luis Bunuel.
Worse than that, however, the film is sailing along nicely when suddenly Zelenka completely trips up at the final hurdle. With what would appear to be a desire for some sort of symmetry in the film, Zelenka stretches the his material beyond its breaking limit and muddles together a cringe-worthy and trite conclusion just for the smarty-pants pleasure of having the film's ending referring to its beginning and making totally sure that all the film's subplots overlap with all the others. (Couldn't he have let a couple of potential overlaps slip just for the sake of a good finale?)
The film is not exactly original. There are far more sophisticated and entertaining examples of ostentatious plotting -such as Gilles Mimouni's L'Appartement (France, 1995) - and the film's concern with sexual manners and outlandish previsions make it highly reminiscent of Jan Svankmajer's more pioneering Spiklenci slasti (Conspirators of Pleasure, 1996), billed by the director as an erotic film without sex. Both director's even have similar philosophical outlooks.
Despite these glaring faults, Knoflikari is apparently able to charm anyone. After all, Zelenka is a fine satirist, the film is quintessentially post-modern and it is the most restrained Czech comedy in a long time, all of which makes it well worth seeing.
Perhaps the most note-worthy thing about the film, though, is its production. At a time when directors are finding it increasingly hard to get their hands on cash for film-making, Zelenka has managed to craft an international hit using what is, by industry standards, a paltry sum. Czech directors are, on the whole, rather infatuated with Hollywood at the moment and there would appear to be a misconception that the key to making good Czech films lies in spending huge sums of money. Zelenka effectively explodes that theory and if Czech directors and producers take note, in future we should be seeing more Czech films where the thinking has been directed at the film and not at its budget.
Andrew J Horton, 4 January 1999
The Rotterdam Film Festival page has a short review in English and the opportunity to see a clip from the film.
The British release of Knoflikari is being arranged through the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. Their Website scores highly on presentation but is one of the least informative sites I've ever seen. Try phoning them instead (00 44 171 930 3647).
Knoflikari has recently been released on video in the Czech Republic, so if you want a copy without subtitles, get in touch with the Czech Video Centre. UK viewers may have to wait awhile for an English version, but in the meantime they might like to try out Svankmajer's Spiklenci slasti which is readily available from high street stores with a good world cinema section. L'Appartement is also out on video in the UK and every now and then gets screened at London's Prince Charles cinema just off Leicester Square.
Being one of the Czech Republic's favourite film's, Knoflikari appears on a good many Websites. For another review in English, see Insideout
Czech Movie Heaven do their usual fine job in providing production credits and also reprint a good many reviews from Czech newspapers and weekly magazines.
For more illuminating reading, you could try Kinofil's interview with Zelenka and Neviditelny Pes (The Invisible Dog) has a regular column entitled FFFILM, which frequently offers nuggets of trivia on this most trendy of Czech films. Browse through their archive.
London's Riverside Studios are HERE.
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