In Hezké chvilky bez záruky (English title: Pleasant Moments), acclaimed director Věra Chytilová manages to make profound statements on the nature of humanity with such a striking concealment that most viewers won’t even notice them. It´s a continuation of her post-New Wave career; the surrealist masterpiece Daisies is often pointed to as her greatest achievement, but she continued to make equally important films under communist rule – they just had to be so subversive the censors wouldn´t even notice.
One of my favorites is 1977´s Panelstory, the definitive story of life in a panelak (apartment complex) with biting political commentary so hidden that it makes it all the more worthwhile to discover. As a senatorial candidate from the political party Strana Rovnost Šancí, Chytilová no longer remains in obscurity. Unfortunately for some, her post-New Wave films still do. But for those of us willing to give them a chance, they´re still as relevant and sublime as her efforts from forty years ago.
Bear with me: I recall, many moons ago, watching The Incredible Melting Man, a mostly forgettable sci-fi feature. One scene, however, has stuck with me throughout the years: our hero, the brilliant scientist, is at home with his wife, expecting some guests for dinner. It suddenly dawns upon him – his wife has forgotten the crackers, a necessary ingredient for the hors d´oeuvres. He erupts into a blind rage – how could this have happened? She knew that we needed the crackers! Meanwhile, the Melting Man is terrorizing the countryside, killing people (I think) while slowly wasting away into a puddle of goo. But I mostly recall the crackers; I laughed at the horrible acting and surrealism of the vignette, but in truth, there was more drama and tension in that one scene than the rest of the movie.
In Pleasant Moments, Chytilová focuses on the crackers. As the film opens, our heroine, the psychologist Hana (Jana Janěková) shouts obscenities into her dashboard as she deals with heavy traffic, already late for work. This is possibly the most dramatic scene in the film, reaching its zenith with Hana abruptly changing lanes, and culminating in a minor fender bender wherethe other driver kicks her car a couple times and drives away. In most films, scenes like this are used as character development; here, these scenes comprise the entire film as Chytilová eschews characters, and development, and any kind of traditional story. It´s quite brilliant; look at all of the problems in the world, and yet, what do we really care about?
The bulk of the film is a series of vignettes featuring Hana interacting with a multitude of patients, all of which have their own personal problems: a woman fears she can see the future, a man can´t stop rubbing up against strangers, etc. A woman is physically abused by her husband, but can´t bring herself to leave him; enough story for an entire film, but here, dramatically flat and quickly forgotten: Hana can´t help the patient unless she is willing to help herself, nor can the film itself intervene. No, here more drama unfolds when Hana makes steak for dinner – when she knows her husband (Igor Bareš) will not be there. That says more about their relationship than a slap after the husband suggests a threesome with another woman. The slap is expected; the steak must be interpreted. The husband eventually leaves – blink and you´ll miss it; by the time he leaves it´s an afterthought. It´s the little things leading up to it that matter.
Another patient, Eva (Jana Krausová) compliments Hana after she puts on some makeup for the first time in the film. A passing comment, nothing more, but perhaps more important to Hana than a murder or attempted suicide – for the rest of the movie, she´s wearing makeup in almost every scene. Eva, a gallery owner, has her own story in which she falls in love with her son´s friend. Tension emerges between Eva and her son (David Kraus, real-life son of Jana Krausová), but we side with Hana – if they´re happy together, what´s the problem?
The scenes between Eva and her son seem forced – dramatically flat – until we realize that´s the point. The son seems more upset that his mother and friend are cooking together than sleeping together. The real tension is in the small details; we just hide them in the big picture. The final scene is perfect: a patient recalls to Hana a near-rape in a rowboat on the Vltava river, under the National Theater, where she seems more concerned that the president may have bore witness. Hana laughs as she now realizes how ridiculous all of it is, what we really care about. The laugh turns to a cry in a final freeze-frame.
The film is shot in an almost gonzo-realist fashion by cinematographer Martin Štrba; handheld all the way, with constant repositioning and use of the zoom lens. Offbeat music from David Kraus is sparsely, and effectively, used throughout.
The famous example from Buñuel´s Un Chien Andalou: shot #1 shows us a man looking out a window; shot #2 shows a man riding a bicycle on the street. We are conditioned to accept that the first man is looking at the second; surrealism calls this into question. That statement on film editing was in 1929. In 2006, we have almost daily terrorist threats, global warming, cancer, bird flu, war, and a film about minor irritations from a master director and political candidate.
Chytilová has become so subversive that a) most viewers will now regard and dismiss her recent work as a more traditional form of storytelling, and b) some viewers (myself) will read far, far too much into her films, taking something out of them that, perhaps, was never put into them. Regardless, at least for some of us, she continues to do her job to perfection: to make us think. Her latest film is just as valuable as any of them.
There are Melting Men out there, yes. But in truth, all we really care about are the crackers.