The spirit of countercultural Czech icon Věra Chytilová lives on in The 8 Heads of Madness (8 Hlav Šílenství), an unexpectedly offbeat account of the life of Russian poet Anna Alexandrovna Barkovová from Czech filmmaker Marta Nováková.
And there’s a little Terry Gilliam irreverence in here, too. But the theatrical, highly-stylized presentation doesn’t always mesh well with the account of a woman who served 20 brutal years in the gulag.
Take, for example, a scene in which Barkovová (played by Czech pop singer Aneta Langerová, making her feature film debut) casually mentions execution via voiceover narration during an early scene. Cue a bloody cartoon axe and a crude animated graphic of her severed head rolling towards the audience.
Other scenes, detailing Barkovová’s childhood, put the 30-year-old Langerová in a 12-year-old’s dress complete with a giant bow twice the size of her head. She and other actors perform in front of animated, hand-drawn backgrounds.
The style here, cartoonishly over the top, is striking. But how am I supposed to reconcile it with the intense true-life story at the heart of the film?
That story involves Barkovová, a talented writer, poet, and journalist, who is sent to the gulag for much of her adult life for saying some things she shouldn’t have said about the state. There, she travels with a group of other imprisoned women by train to do manual labor in freezing conditions throughout the country.
There’s little in the way of narrative drive here; much of the film is presented as a series of loosely-connected vignettes that showcase an important moment in Barkova’s life. The movie is told in chapters (the “8 Heads” of the title) but a word of caution: if you’re getting bored and see a glimmer of hope by the eighth chapter, note that’s it’s by far the longest in the movie.
Fortunately, it also happens to be the best; by downplaying the style and shifting the focus towards some of the secondary players, the movie finally manages to wring some emotion out of the scenario.
Langerová, in the lead role, is a distraction: her over-the-top portrayal of this angry young woman feels relentlessly one-note: with pursed lips, a permanent scowl, and heavy feet, she seems to be a self-aware parody of the lead in I, Olga Hepnarová.
While Langerová’s performance might fit in with the animated feel of earlier scenes, she’s wildly out of place in the gulag, which is where most of The 8 Heads of Madness takes place, and which is (thankfully) spared of the filmmaker’s more flippant intrusions.
But there’s some excellent work put in by other actresses in the gulag scenes, reserved and subtle and genuinely affecting: Marie Štípková is a friend of Barkovová’s, who learns the hard way what it takes to survive in the gulag; Zuzana Fialová is an older woman who Barkovová begins a relationship with; and Anna Sedlačková is a doctor who Barkovová finds some spiritual guidance from.
Each of these characters gets a scene of their own to stand out, and each of the actresses delivers thoughtful work that feels out of place with much of the rest of the movie. Their fleeting scenes bring an emotional core to the film missing from the presentation of Barkovová.
I learned – and cared – little about the famed poet at the center of The 8 Heads of Madness, but the nameless victims of the brutal Soviet gulag are given a resonating voice. And while the style doesn’t always seem to work, it does give the movie something unique. Cinematography by Lukáš Hyksa, especially in the wintry gulag scenes, is first-rate; the twangy original score by Vladivojna La Chia is evocative, even if it doesn’t always match the proceedings.
The 8 Heads of Madness (8 Hlav Šílenství) is currently screening with English subtitles at Kino Lucerna.