In four separate scenes spaced out over the duration of the banal new Czech drama Pohádkář, we see a close-up of a credit card being used to make an RFID payment. It’s not a casual detail, but the central focus of an individual shot; in cinematic language, the filmmakers are telling us that this is important. It’s the same way, for example, a close-up of a clock might be used to convey the importance of time.
The card is used to pay for a ukulele, then a movie, then a meal, and each time by a different character. At first, it completely threw me for a loop: so is he using her credit card? Is it a fake, or stolen, or some other detail of significance for the money-troubled central character? What does it mean?
The answer is simple, of course: it’s an advertisement for MasterCard. If you need confirmation, look no further than the closing-credit MasterCard logo that takes up the entire width of the screen.
Pohádkář represents the most egregious example of product placement I have ever seen in a movie, so much so that it completely overtakes the story; the only entertainment I had during the film was at the closing credits, when I was able to match up the endless list of companies to their products featured within the film.
One of the lead characters turns on his TV to reveal… the homepage of Seznam.cz, which hangs on the screen awkwardly for five seconds. Later, he spends ten seconds browsing through the programs available on the TV station Nova. Then he goes to the cinema and purchases a ticket (close-up of credit card transaction) in a thirty-second sequence that exists for no reason other than to accommodate partners CineStar and MasterCard. The list goes on… and on.
The movie surrounding all the advertising is an exhausting 90-minute slog that will test the limits of your patience. It’s incredibly boring, but to call it a snoozefest would be inaccurate; it’s so frequently irritating that any sleep-like reprieve would be impossible.
Despite being sold as a bouncy holiday-season romance – posters for the film plastered throughout Prague feature Eva Herzigova’s ecstatic smile and call it a “Moderní Lovestory” – Pohádkář (English title: Storyteller) is anything but. It opens with the discovery of an unidentified – and unidentifiable – corpse by the river, and then dissolves into a half-assed detective story cross-bred with domestic melodrama, told entirely via flashback.
Matěj Hádek stars as Rott, the detective on the case; he’s waiting for blood work to come back to confirm if the body in question is Marek Freubert, a debt-riddled music producer. There are two possibilities here: the body is Freubert (in which case he committed suicide, or was murdered), or it isn’t. The blood test will reveal the answer at the end of the film, of course, but by that time we simply don’t care.
Instead of investigating the case, Rott simply interviews the concerned parties – Freubert’s two lovers – numerous times to lead into the flashback scenes. Meanwhile, his partner calls via Skype to keep him informed of actual developments in the case. He has his own family drama to deal with, but these scenes mostly serve as a lead-in to the product placement. Still, Rott is the most likable character here, if only due to the lack of reasons to actively dislike him.
Freubert, as played by Jiří Macháček in the flashback scenes, is an irredeemable sleazeball who owes millions (to who, or for what, we never learn) in debts, sleeps around, seduces wealthy women and lets them take care of him, and sends his teenage daughter to live in a dormitory because it’s easier for him. He’s a complete asshole, but the film treats him like a lovable lug, letting him off for all of his sins with a strict finger wagging. Oh, Marek.
Marek has a child with Dana (Aňa Geislerová), the lawyer who represented him in his debt and divorce cases, and presumably supports him financially, whom he now cheats on and ignores emotionally. Geislerová is terrific, as always – one sequence, where she tells him to “sleep with her and pretend to like it,” is dynamite – but we have no idea why her character should bother with this loser.
Model Eva Herzigova (best known, perhaps, for her work with WonderBra) stars as Karla, the married mother Marek manages to seduce into leaving her wealthy but distant husband (again, what does she see in this guy?)
In what will be her first prominent role for local audiences, Herzigova still looks stunning in her 40s and asserts herself well, particularly in a lurid, chilly-cool scene where Karla tells her husband she wants a divorce. Later on, however, her big emotional meltdown turns nearly laughable; frantic camerawork and editing hopes to save the sequence – Herzigova is only briefly glimpsed in the mirror in her character’s biggest scene – but it’s for naught.
Geislerová and Macháček are two of the most prominent stars in the Czech film scene. Herzigova is one of the best-known models in the world. The makers of Pohádkář didn’t have to do much for this thing to be interesting, but they’ve provided their top talent with precious little to work with (Hádek’s detective has the majority of the screen time). Marek Epstein (Ve stínu) adapted Barbara Nesvadbová’s novel, but there are just two things missing here: a story to maintain our interest, and a reason to care about these characters.
While the family melodrama struggles – and fails – to maintain our interest, the filmmakers attempt to spice things up with bizarre fetishistic imagery: Macháček breaks an egg into Geislerová’s open mouth; later, he suckles from her teet; a cat licks a crusty breast pump; Rott sleeps in bed embracing his teenage son. Yeesh.
Once upon a time, director Vladimír Michálek made the Czech Lion-winning Je třeba zabít Sekala and Babí léto, the endearing final film of Vlastimil Brodský. Now, he’s put his name on Pohádkář, a slick, factory-produced, corporate-minded product that is emblematic of everything that’s wrong with the Czech film industry.