Vol 0, No 17
19 January 1999
K I N O E Y E:|
The perils and the romance
Part I, The perils
Vera Chytilova's Pasti, pasti, pasticky
Andrew J Horton
Since 1989, fans of Czech cinema have been keeping their eyes on, not, as you might think, a new generation of young directors, but instead the names who shot to fame in the liberal interlude of the Prague Spring. Stifled for twenty years many of them are now taking advantage of the freer political atmosphere, not to mention the attention, to leave off where their success was curtailed. Among them is Vera Chytilova, whose "feminist black comedy" Pasti, pasti, pasticky (Traps, 1998) was on show at the 42nd London Film Festival.
The title Traps in English creates few resonances, but in Czech it's a very different story. The form of Pasti, pasti, pasticky's Czech title occasionally leads to the film being artlessly translated as Traps, Traps, Little Traps or rather more imaginatively as All the Little Traps. But the Czech title is in fact a pun on a children's nursery rhyme, "Paci, paci, pacicky" (Hands, hands, little hands), which is usually recited with the aid of actions, not unlike "Pat a cake, pat a cake, baker's man" in English.
Vengeful rape victim
Chytilova's dark nursery rhyme revolves around three characters. When Minister of the Environment Dohnal meets an old friend, Petr Lacina, at a party, they both envy how each other has got on in the world. Lacina is jealous of Dohnal's power and influence but Dohnal is sexually unfulfilled and craves the success that the lecherous Lacina commands amongst women. To illustrate the correct way to handle a woman, Lacina takes Dohnal out for a spin to pick up a woman for Dohnal to rape.
They soon come across Lenka hitch-hiking by her broken-down car and take her off to some secluded country lane. They picked the wrong woman, though, having chosen Lenka, a vet. In a struggle she loses consciousness and feigns complete amnesia when she comes round. Since she seems to have no recollection of the rape, the two are happy to drive her home, especially since this is preferable to the other previously mooted alternative -killing her. Once there, she cajoles them into having a drink, which she has spiked with an obviously powerful dose of veterinary drugs. When they come round the dastardly duo discover that their testicles have been skilfully removed and are in a bowl on the table in front of them.
Male readers/viewers will be relieved to hear that the operation itself is not shown, but it is painfully evoked by the film's opening sequence which shows Lenka hard at work castrating piglets - all shown in all too graphic detail. The theme continues throughout the film with double-entendres based on balls being frequently used ("It's a whole new ball game" etc), very much in the vein of the British "Carry On" series of films, but in slightly worse taste.
After the pair go involuntarily under the knife, the film goes seriously off-track and thrashes about aimlessly for the last hour before finishing weakly. All three protagonists are caught up in the results of Lenka's radical revenge. Whereas, Dohnal and Lacina, after a certain amount of struggling, get to grips with life as eunuchs, Lenka has no such luck in adapting to her end of the trauma: she is racked by regret and guilt, her relationship with her boyfriend disintegrates and eventually she is carted off by the men in white coats.
A masculine film?
This may be a black comedy but it is no feminist black comedy. Beyond the pluck of the film's first half-hour, Chytilova seems unsure about what her message is and sends conflicting signals to the viewer. In the second half of the film, showing Lenka's inability to control the consequences of her actions, contradicts the first half of the film, in which Chytilova implicitly approves of Lenka's gonad-removing antics.
This is also the view of the film's marketing. The poster and the cover of the recently released video for the film show a photomontaged shot of Lenka standing aggressively over the pair wielding a hefty knife, whilst they stare forlornly at their recently detached goolies (not in-shot, I might add). Indeed, the whole selling-point of the film is that it is about a woman who cuts off her attackers' most treasured anatomical possessions.
Quite what all this is meant to say about how Chytilova feels women should react to male harassment, or even attack, is unclear. If anything the film's message is depressingly reactionary - don't resist them, even if you do you'll end up worse off. I suspect that Chytilova was aiming for a satire of society as a man's world, but she is far too affectionate towards male culture. The fact that her smutty toilet humour is so masculine discounts the possibility that the affection is ironic.
Chytilova even seems to have some sympathy with Dohnal's need to rape a woman. Following on in the grand old Czech tradition of using a protagonist's name to comment on his or her character, Chytilova names her violating anti-hero Dohnal. This is a common Czech surname but derived, or at least having the appearance of being derived, from the verb dohnat, meaning to be driven into doing something. (The word lacina, incidentally, means cheap.) This would seem to imply that Chytilova believes that her rapist did not act out of his own volition but had the deed forced on him by his sexual dissatisfaction with his wife. For a feminist, this is nothing short of a cop-out.
High camp and wobbly cameras
The execution of Pasti, pasti, pasticky is just as puzzling as its conception. Chytilova has recently been working with avant-garde theatre groups and the film is supposedly evidence of this. However, the dramatic style is woefully indistinguishable from the caricatured comic vein of acting which is the bane of contemporary Czech cinema. The only thing avant-garde seemed to be Chytilova's interesting mix of sumptuous sets, to show the opulence of political power, and the rough and ready feel of Nouvelle Vague-style hand-held camera techniques.
Pasti, pasti, pasticky is one of the biggest cinematic disappointments in years. Chytilova attempts to tackle some weighty themes, such as male violence, the pornography of advertising and life as a complex tangle of power structures. Sadly she misses an opportunity to say anything truly interesting about her chosen subject matter and fails to do justice to the newly invented genre of feminist black comedy. Doubtless the film will be guaranteed notoriety by dint of the fact that a description of the film is far more interesting the actual work itself. However, Chytilova is going to need to produce more than just interesting descriptions if she is to be considered a great director of two different eras rather than just one.
Andrew J Horton, 19 January 1999
Click here to read Part II of this series
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