Donšajni (The Don Juans in English), the latest film from acclaimed director Jiří Menzel, often feels like a personal reflection on the loneliness that results from a lifetime of being a Casanova. But what should have been an intimate journey instead rarely reaches beyond the realm of lightweight dramedy so prevalent in contemporary Czech cinema.
Set in the world of small-town opera as a local theater troupe stages a production of Don Giovanni, Donšajni stars Jan Hartl as director Vítek (and, presumably, a stand-in for director Menzel), who has his way with the female cast and crew. In un-ironically icky fashion: while there are no overly-explicit sex scenes, Hartl is at least twice the age of many of the co-stars he shares his bed with.
Libuše Šafránková (once the star of Tři oříšky pro Popelku) stars opposite Hartl as Markétka, a schoolteacher who is trying to appropriate an abandoned theater for children’s choir. While their stories are told in parallel throughout the first half of the film, a freak accident brings the two characters together.
I didn’t like the fact that Šafránková – despite actually being younger than Hartl – is never see as a potential love interest: Markétka is the old (great!)-grandmother, while Vítek is the irresistible Don Juan who would never consider settling down with a woman his own age – despite, clearly, having a lot in common with her.
That’s kind of the point – the life of a Don Juan is ultimately one that ends in loneliness. But while this theme is driven home without much subtlety, the film oddly shies away from suggesting the potential for romance that would make it even more relevant. Menzel, as writer-director, seems to be treating Markétka with the same kind of obliviousness that his lead character does.
A second Don Juan is introduced in the form of Jakub (Martin Huba), an internationally-renowned singer who Vítek recruits to play Don Pedro. Like Vítek, Jakub is old and alone: years of being a Casanova have left him with no family. While the character really only underscores the film’s theme in a supporting role, he’s the best thing about Donšajni, thanks in large part to Huba’s sympathetic performance.
The first half of Donšajni is rough stuff: light and airy but almost entirely devoid of story thrust, it’s a pleasant-enough ride that sets up the story through excessive voiceover narration and gives the audience nothing to grab hold of. Things pick up considerably in the second half as plot threads finally come together, but as the film becomes more engaging it also becomes less appealing: its chief problem is an unlikable lead with no discernible story arc.
With the thematic material transparent, Donšajni may be the director’s most personal film. In concept, at least. The execution bears little of the director’s trademark touches for satire and black comedy: Menzel was the director behind the Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains as well as the Soviet-banned Larks on a String, a stinging indictment of the regime that was banned for 20 years, and Konec starých časů, a hilarious parody that signaled their downfall.
Compared to those classics – and others, including Rozmarné léto, Vesničko má středisková, and most recently, I Served the King of England – Donšajni comes off like a film by a master filmmaker who has lost his craft. Menzel has been one of the most important directors on the Czech scene over the last 40 years, but you wouldn’t know it from his latest.
From a technical standpoint, meanwhile, the film cannot be faulted. Longtime Menzel cinematographer Jaromír Šofr beautifully captures the small-town setting while the buoyant score by Aleš Březina is a perfect fit for the tone of the material.
Donšajni opened to little fanfare and decidedly negative reviews in the local press earlier this month, and audiences weren’t much kinder. Still, the film somehow managed to secure the Czech Republic’s official submission to the 2014 Academy Awards as Best Foreign-Language Film, likely based on Menzel’s reputation alone. Unfortunately, Donšajni is one of his weakest efforts.