The film humorously charts the first pangs of romance and the associated disappointments when a factory manager in rural Czechoslovakia bargains with the army to send men to boost the morale of his young female workers.
Geoffrey Macnab relishes the humour and humanity of Milos Forman’s film about love in a Cold War climate.
The Czech writer-director Ivan Passer (who co-scripted A Blonde in Love) tells some very colourful stories about his school days at the King George College in Podebrady, a small spa town to the east of Prague. Here, a 13th-century fortress was turned into a boarding school in 1945; the founder was Lady Baden-Powell, wife of the man who started the Scout Movement, and the 70 pupils included problem kids, war orphans and the sons of foreign diplomats. Milos Forman was there, as was Václav Havel (future president of the Czech Republic but a keen student boxer in those days), the Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski and the animator Paul Fierlinger. Forman, Passer recalls, was a ferociously competitive child who once challenged him to a duel to see who could stand in a corner with a book on their head for the longest. They stood for hours, neither one prepared to lose.
Watching A Blonde in Love (released by Second Run in a restored, digitally remastered version), it’s easy to be reminded of Passer’s yarns about the young Forman. It plays like a cross between a 1960s New Wave film and an Ealing comedy. As in Ealing films, there is a wry, subversive attitude towards bureaucracy: Zruc, the factory town where the story is largely set, has a ratio of 16 women to every man. In a wonderful early scene, pettifogging civil servants discuss the town’s problems – two thousand girls live there, all without boyfriends. “Girls, rosebuds! You understand? Youth,” an official explains to the Comrade Mayor. That’s why a consignment of soldiers is sent to the town for a special dance. To the girls’ disappointment, however, they are all reservists – middle-aged, overweight and tending to baldness.
Cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek shoots the dance in vérité style. The camera darts between the tables where soldiers and girls sit warily opposite one another. At one point, a bespectacled and very tubby soldier takes off his wedding ring and hides it in his pocket as he prepares to dance with one of the girls; almost inevitably, the ring falls out of his pocket, and the camera follows it as it rolls across the dance floor, through a sea of legs, and ends up under the chair of one of the women. The soldier crawls after it and ends up beneath the table, rummaging around beside the women’s feet – the humour is wonderfully deadpan and understated.
It’s just one example of Forman’s genius for homing in on seemingly minor and banal details that turn out to be both comic and very revealing. The scene in which the ‘blonde’, Andula (Hana Brejchová), makes love with the young quaffed-up musician Milda (Vladimír Pucholt) is shot in a surprisingly frank way, but there is nothing overwrought or voyeuristic about it. Forman leavens what could have seemed an awkward moment by putting as much emphasis on Milda’s hapless attempts to close the blinds as on the lovemaking. “It was,” Ken Loach has said, describing what enraptured him about the films of Forman and his contemporaries, “the unmelodramatic way they observed people with some sense of shared humanity.”
A Blonde in Love is a deceptive film, since the world it depicts with such gentle irony is really very bleak – the girls work long hours at their factory jobs in this remote provincial town. It may open with a young woman singing a rock ’n’ roll song on an acoustic guitar, but in this grey, damp-looking corner of communist-era Czechoslovakia there are few hints of the Beatles or the Stones. The women may have jobs, but that doesn’t mean they have independence.
As Michael Brooke points out in an introductory essay to the film included with the DVD release, Forman first had the idea for the movie in the late 1950s after meeting a girl carrying a suitcase late at night in Prague. She had come in search of a man with whom she’d had a one-night stand. Unlike this woman, Andula knows where Milda lives – the problem is that his parents live there too, and he has neglected to tell them anything about her. They quickly quash her romantic notions about eloping or living with him.
In the 1960s, when the Czech film industry was under Soviet control, filmmakers such as Forman and Jiri Menzel deliberately made intimate and comical dramas about everyday characters. Forman proclaimed that he wasn’t interested in “grand manner” or “operatic emotion”, and that the best stories were rooted in ordinary behaviour. His films were cherished by Czech audiences – Passer claimed that when he and Forman went into exile in the late 1960s they didn’t have the proper papers, but the border guard was such a fan of Forman’s that he waved them through.
Forman has gone on to make some very distinguished films in the west (most recently 2006’s underrated Goya’s Ghosts). Nonetheless, films such as Ragtime (1981), Amadeus (1984), Valmont (1989) and even the celebrated One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) don’t have the simplicity or arguably the perceptiveness of A Blonde in Love. Sometimes, in his work in the US, Forman has indulged in “grand manner” and “operatic emotion”, and the mischief and playfulness that Passer spotted in him when they were schoolchildren haven’t been a hallmark of his Hollywood career. A Blonde in Love, like Menzel’s Closely Observed Trains(1966), hasn’t dated at all, and its humour, finely honed social observation, eroticism and mild subversiveness remain as fresh today as in the mid-1960s.
Geoffrey Macnab, Sight and Sound, 20 Dec 2011.
The flirtatious title of Milos Forman’s breakthrough comedy Loves of a Blonde says a lot about the film without even trying. Everybody in Forman’s bittersweet film thinks about sex constantly but only in terms of hypothetical scenarios that almost never come to pass. The funny thing about these daydreams of coitus is that they’re not strictly sexy. In fact, most of the time characters in Loves of a Blonde are wringing their hands about sex, even the trio of homely soldiers licking their lips at the thought of seducing a table of bored blondes at a local dance. First they send alcohol to the wrong table and are subsequently unsure of how long they should smile at the girls they plan on getting drunk and taking to the woods (they aren’t even sure if the idea of taking girls to the woods for sex is just a euphemism or not). Sex is comedy here because it breeds nothing but the kind of anxiety that the title of Forman’s film teems with.
And yet in spite of its name, Loves of a Blonde is comically deliberate in how it pokes at the fact that its protagonists spend more time hemming and hawing and not actually, y’know, doing it. The one time that Andula (Hana Brejchová), the eponymous blonde, acts on her impulses and allows herself to be seduced by Milda (Vladimír Pucholt), it seems like the thing will never come off. As the surest scene of impending action is some skin-on-skin tactility, Forman teases us by having Andula and Milda only stare at each other briefly and never directly until they finally actually bump into each other and even then they only get together inadvertently. Andula and Milda only really cross paths when Andula is attempting to abscond with her friends from the aforementioned trio of oafish soldiers (being romantics, they believe that the key to a woman’s heart is alcohol). While her friends wind up returning to the guys, Andula tarries with Milda and lets him read her palm and later show her how to fend off prowlers with a swift kick to the shins. Even before the big event, Forman has Milda pantomime his way through a Tati-esque battle with his window shade before he can pounce on Andula, who looks on with an unreadable stare from behind her bare right shoulder (the way she provocatively lies on her side will surely trigger a response with Lost in Translationfans). Any kind of physical action but the dreaded one that’s on everyone’s minds.
The cagey nature of Andula’s tentative romance with Milda is also what gives the film a quietly stifled melancholic tone. Andula works at a shoe factory in a small town while he plays piano in a touring group based in Prague. A lasting partnership is impossible but that’s why Forman immerses the viewer in what a plot synopsis on the back of the Criterion Collection’s new Essential Arthouse DVD erroneously calls “largely real-time” pacing. We’re meant to see events not as they transpire but as they will later be remembered—absurdly sluggish and lush with hyper-real detail when it comes to the buildup to sex but a complete blackout when it comes to the act itself.
The meticulousness of regular cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek’s compositions betray the protagonists’ desperate need to focus on what actually is happening in light of the fact that it can’t last for long. Of the film’s three vignettes, the film’s hilariously distended final one, where Andula waits for Milda at his family apartment with his parents, stands out. It provides an enlightening and very true-to-life explanation as to why the couple will never really have more than a one-night stand: While Milda’s folks quibble over whether or not it’s proper for Andula to spend the night at their place, Andula, the object of their son’s desire, waits patiently to be told whether she can stay or if she’s got to go. Forget the rebellious protagonists of Forman’s later movies: Just by sitting through that kind of torment for the fleeting promise of carnal happiness, Andula is the most free-spirited of Forman’s radicals.
Simon Abrams, Slant magazine, 13th April 2010.
|4 (9%)||23 (51%)||17 (38%)||1 (2%)||0 (0%)|
Total Number of Responses: 45
Film Score (0-5): 3.67
109 members and guests attended this screening and the 45 responses represent a hit rate of 41%.
“On the one hand this is a quirky, light hearted, realistic slice of working class life in the manner of the French Nouvelle Vague and British kitchen sink drama of the period. On the other it makes for a rather uncomfortable watch in the #metoo era, where every man appears to be a potential rapist and you are begging the charming but irritating romantic fantasist Andula not to go into the woods. It is nicely played by an appealingly believable cast and it is an often amusing script but the conclusions are profoundly sad; her white knight is nowhere to be seen. She is doomed to be abused and will only have her friends at the factory and her intensely myopic, bordering on delusional, view of her relationships to keep her warm”.
“Thank you again for everything you do for the film goers of Godalming and villages. I’d score last night’s film average - partly in comparison to the other ones that we’ve recently seen. Although I found it somewhat humorous in parts (hunting the wedding ring), some of the scenes dragged on too long (reservists discussing the table of girls, parents in the kitchen then family in the bed). But I suppose in some ways those draggy scenes conveyed the crushing boredom that the young girls must have been experiencing. I suspect I have not extracted all that was on offer from this film but I did get a flavour of the greyness of life behind the iron curtain in the 60s and the paucity of opportunity for the female youth”.
“Absorbing but not particularly engaging. Some reviewers seem to like the slapstick, but I found it didn’t really come off – at best a wry smile, more often just vicarious embarrassment. Oddly disjointed in places. You’ll gather I didn’t especially enjoy it, but recognise some clever writing and production”. “Very well observed – liked the gentle humour. The reaction of the parents to the girl just turning up was most entertaining but ultimately a rather sad story of quiet desperation”. “Wonderful portrayal of characters. Poignant, yet with a great sense of humour. A true portrayal of am Eastern European Country in 1965”.
“Very true to life and had comedy to provide the pathos.” “Lovely dance hall scenes. A bit reminiscent of early 60’s school discos!! Seemed an innocent simple film but with some dark undertones”. “A blonde in love!” “Undemanding – quirky retelling of the old story”. “Charming, well observed, light humour. But not subtle?”. “Very funny, very perceptive”. “Entertaining, grim communist 1960’s. Very human”. “How sad”. “Left me speechless – interesting characters”. “Not funny”. “Elements of it reminded me of student days! Very different. I laughed out loud!” “Not sure that was worth leaving a nice warm house for! Amusing in parts – but oh so slow”. “Terrible subtitles. Too fast in places”. “Can’t believe it was directed by the same person as “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest””. “Dated and slow”. “Sad, but too slow”. “A bit debatable”. “Pleasant but a bit boring”.