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“Killing Season”’s superficially Balkan conscience at least gave it a faint thematic connection to a festival that, for all its astute cherry-picking of other festivals’ highlights, is most significant as a showcase for new Eastern European cinema. So I’m happy to say that two of the best things I saw in my time there were both homegrown Czech productions, beginning with Jan Hrebejk’s slick but pleasingly knotty ghosts-of-the-past melodrama “Honeymoon” (B), which I’m told should be a significant local hit. It’s also a strong candidate to be the country’s foreign Oscar entry this year. Hrebejk’s “Divided We Fall” was nominated in 2000, and he’s been submitted twice since – most recently in 2010 with “Kawasaki’s Rose,” a complex tangle of Communist-era emotional debts that I admired at its Berlinale premiere.
I hadn’t realized until now that “Kawasaki’s Rose” was conceived as the first in a thematically linked trilogy of films about the damaging repercussions of secrets come to light – to which “Honeymoon” is the conclusion. I haven’t seen the intervening entry, 2011’s “Innocence,” though it would appear some tonal transition has taken place: there’s a vein of spry, charcoal-gray humor running through the new film that contrasts strongly with the poetic stoicism of “Rose,” though both films engage with cruel human truths. By situating the narrative in the fluid dramatic playground of a crowded country estate over a single weekend, Hrebejk seems to have at least one eye on Renoir’s deathless comedy of manners, “The Rules of the Game” – which is not to overstate the pleasures of a film that most recalls a wryer, slyer Susanne Bier.
We open on the lavish church wedding ceremony of attractive, well-to-do couple Tereza (Anna Geislerova) and Radim (Stanislav Mejer) – an event in which neighboring optician and apparent stranger Jan (Jiri Cerny) takes an inordinate amount of interest, cheerily photographing the wedding party and following them, unbidden, to the reception. Our tetchy bride, keen not to make a scene on her big day, is nonetheless anxious to evict this politely creepy crasher, who seems to harbor a crush on her Teutonic hubby. Hrebejk cleverly keeps her reactions pitched halfway between unwonted snobbery and reasonable panic, until the unwrapping of Jan’s wedding gift – a sturdy urn bearing his own name – suggests he’s out to upset more than just the seating plan.
“Theatrical” is all too often used by film critics as an unqualified putdown, but this is cinema that, in the best sense, unfolds like a good play. Hrebejk keeps multiple mysteries of identity and motivation in flux from one act to the next, faltering only in a denouement that hammers home its soapy ironies a shade too cleanly. His cast, meanwhile, is on point throughout – particularly Geislerova, whose brittle vulnerability and clean-scrubbed beauty would make her a pretty nifty replacement for Gwyneth Paltrow, should we someday lose the Oscar winner to macrobiotics forever. That likeness isn’t the only thing making it easy for me to imagine a smart Hollywood rejig of “Honeymoon,” though it hardly requires one.
The festival’s other Czech highlight came to me via a recommendation from festival director Karel Och: when I asked him for a personal favorite that I’d be less likely to see elsewhere, he directed me without hesitation to “DK” (B), a short, sharp, discomfitingly intimate documentary about the late Czech architect David Kopecky, a radical aesthetician who died in 2009, aged just 46, of a brain tumor. Far from a standard-issue cinematic eulogy, Bara Kopecka’s portrait is colored by equal doses of devotion and anger – as it would be, considering that Kopecka is the subject’s much put-upon widow. (As such, it’d make the spikier half of a double feature with Agnes Varda’s “Jacquot de Nantes.”)
It takes a lover, after all, to draw the compelling connection this film does between an artist’s professional triumphs and personal shortfalls. The architect was celebrated for his restless creativity and uncompromised individuality, but Kopecka doesn’t flinch from showing how these very virtues could make him aggressively difficult to live and/or work with – the film’s surfeit of home-video footage makes for some wincingly tough viewing, particularly as Kopecky becomes increasingly possessed by his illness. It’s a bruised, brave one-off that deserves beyond-borders travel on the festival circuit.
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