ARTMargins Online Blog

More Than Medium Awareness: Jan Hřebejk's Family Cycle

 

To see where the visual extends beyond the textual, it’s necessary to first review the plots of these films. Reader, be forewarned, spoilers are unavoidably a part of the descriptions below.

Present-day infidelity in Kawasaki’s Rose leads to revelations about political betrayals from the past. Lucie (Lenka Vlasáková) first looses her unfaithful husband and then learns that her caring parents, Pavel (Martin Huba) and Jana (Daniela Kolárová), renowned nonconformists during Communism, have long been mendacious about their former activities. During the production of a documentary about the parents’ dissident struggles, a former state security agent (Ladislav Chudík), ominously named Kafka, comes forward to reveal that Pavel is not Lucie’s real father and that he, in fact, betrayed the real one to the Communist regime. Pavel, an eminent doctor who is set to receive an award for his resistance to the old regime, has to cope with his immorality and own up to his treachery. Lucie, on the other hand, tries to connect with her biological father who lives in Sweden where he was exiled.

Kawasakis rose_poster

Seemingly false accusations of pedophilia in Innocence expose long-lasting unfaithfulness within a family of doctors. Tomás (Ondřej Vetchý), an orthopedic doctor, is accused of seducing one of his patients—fanciful, fourteen-year-old Olinka (Anna Linhartová). Although the girl gives very suggestive evidence, there is no concrete proof that Tomás took advantage of her and the doctor is initially exonerated. Soon, however, it is revealed that for the length of his marriage Tomás has carried on an affair with his wife’s younger sister, Lída (Anna Geislerová). Seeing similarities in Olinka’s accusations with her own initial encounters with Tomás, Lída confronts him, but cannot break her years-long infatuation with the man she cannot have. Lída is forlorn when her lover wants to end the affair and commits suicide. In the film’s ultimate twist, condition of Lída’s remains leads the police to think that she was raped and killed. Having had sex with Lída before her death, the DNA evidence implicates Tomás who finds himself in prison at the end of the film, innocent and guilty at the same time.

Nevinnost poster

In Honeymoon, repercussions of old abuses surface on the wedding day of Radim (Stanislav Majer) and Tereza (Anna Geislerová). On his way to the ceremony, Radim runs into a person from his past, a lowly optometrist named Benda (Jirí Cerný), whom he pretends not to recognize. Benda follows the wedding party to a cottage for the celebration, where he proceeds to drop hints about Radim’s dark secrets. The next morning Benda reveals to Tereza how her husband tortured and sexually abused a student at the prep school fifteen years earlier. The student, who found comfort in Benda as the two formed a romantic relationship, was driven to suicide by the abuse he suffered. When Tereza confronts her new husband about his past, Radim manages to convince her that he has changed. But after his son goes missing, Radim reverts to his old ways, viscously beating and nearly drowning Benda. In the end, the newly married couple departs as if nothing happened; but before the credits role, a flashback sequence reveals how Radim abused Benda’s friend and lover.

Honeymoon poster

Because these films are almost wholly narratively driven, their artifice might fade into the background as viewers focus on the twists and turns of the complex plots. But closer attention reveals to what extent visual cues prompt narrative comprehension and add to the overall experience of these films. Hřebejk's family cycle makes use of color to expressively expand upon all three film’s themes of moral uncertainty. For example, every source of light in Kawasaki’s Rose seems to emit a yellow hue, playing on the color’s symbolic references to cowardice, illness, depravity and madness. Innocence is dominated by blue hues that prompt notions of sadness, depression, and loss. While most of Honeymoon is bathed in warm sunlight and the traditional white of weddings, Radim’s attack on Benda takes place in the latter’s dark room, which is drenched in red.

In addition to these symbolic uses of color, there are also moments in Hřebejk's family cycle where images include information that extends beyond the immediate narrative moment or completely alters the meaning of a sequence.  In Kawasaki’s Rose and Innocence, these qualities are partially marked by the hidden presence of characters, which plays tricks on viewers and exposes gaps in their comprehension of the narrative. Early in Kawasaki Rose, there is a sequence of shots that begins with a close-up of Lucie talking on her phone with her husband Ludek (Milan Mikulcík). She has called to tell him that her cancer is benign. It’s a type of cancer found in cattle and Lucie jokes that Ludek now has proof that he married a cow. The next shot is a close-up of Ludek receiving the news. He looks happy and relieved. In the shot that follows, the film cuts to a profile view of Ludek, who is out of focus, and next to him, in focus, stands the woman he is having an affair with.

A comparable sequence unfolds twenty-four minutes into Innocence. In a thirteen-shot sequence, Tomás is seen examining how Olinka’s broken leg has healed. These close-up shots emphasize how Tomás handles the body of the young girl, who submits to the doctor’s instructions. The large scale of these shots fills the frame with Olinka’s flesh, Tomás’s hands, and close-ups of their faces, suggestively isolating these elements. These shots exude a sexual charge, since in the previous scene Tomás’s wife confronted him with a provocative email he received full of explicitly sexual imagery. But the sexual suggestions of Tomás’s interaction with the young girl are undermined when, in the fourteenth shot of the examination sequence, the film cuts to a different side of the examining room to reveal the presence of a nurse.  

Both of these sequences lack an establishing shot that would organize the space and physical relation of the characters. Instead, editing and framing establish expectations for viewers, who are then destabilized when the presence of additional characters is revealed. In this manner, the visual design works to undermine viewers’ comprehension of visual cues and leads them to suspect what the films later reveal. Viewers are, thus, left searching for missing visual and narrative elements. This strategy seems to have at least two goals. Plot twists in these films benefit from this kind of alert mode of viewing; at the same time, viewers are drawn closer to the image and left to scan how the film is visually composed.

The strategy of hidden presence is missing from Honeymoon, perhaps because a different cinematographer was behind the camera. Martin Sácha shot Kawasaki's Rose and Innocence, while Martin Strba filmed Honeymoon. All three films, nevertheless, exploit light effects to manipulate the emotional qualities of scenes, while also revealing a propensity to indulge in lens flares. In Honeymoon, the lens flares are especially prominent as considerable parts of the film are staged outdoors. For instance, as Benda’s presence at Radim’s and Tereza’s wedding celebration becomes increasingly puzzling for both the characters in the film and the viewers, there is a profusion of flares during a sequence that revolves around a pond. Rather than distracting from the unfolding narrative, the circles of refracted light add an additional quality to Benda’s ominous presence at the wedding. These shapes and their movement across the screen alert viewers to the incongruity between the idyllic views of glistening bodies and reflections of sunlight on the water, on the one hand, and Benda’s hints of dark secrets, on the other. It’s as if the film offers viewers the choice to ignore Benda and bask, instead, in the warm glow of the afternoon.

Honeymoon Lighteffect1

Honeymoon Lighteffect2

Honeymoon Lighteffect3

In Kawasaki’s Rose, there is a profusion of lens flares at the beginning of Kafka’s interview for the documentary about Pavel and Jana. As the old state security agent begins to narrate Pavel’s moral failings, his face is almost completely obscured by refracted light. As in Honeymoon this shot sets up a tension between the narrative and visual elements of the film. Obscuring Kafka’s face and the viewers’ vision, the light effect points out how the film, by what it shows, guides the viewer’s engagement and comprehension of the narrative. In Innocence, Lída’s face is almost completely obscured as she rides in the car with her wife’s ex-husband. Light reflected on the car window blocks out their faces with reflections of passing trees. This scene doesn’t bear any considerable significance to the plot of the film, yet the play of light and movement add an ambiguous sense of excess, not yet organized or revealed. This excess, which can be described as an obscure emotional tone, lingers throughout Innocence. Its ambiguity captured perfectly by the film’s title, since virtue seems utterly unfeasible once all the secrets are revealed.  

Kawasakis rose_Lighteffects

Innocence Lighteffects

The surplus or excessive qualities discussed above are some of the moments in the films of Hřebejk's family cycle where narrative development is delayed or altered. Instead of focusing solely on the plot, the viewer’s attention is directed towards the film’s visual address, to the quality and boundaries of the moving images, to what they reveal and keep from the viewer. More than medium awareness, these instances have an ethical dimension. They implicate viewers in the moral complexity of these films by making them attentive to how elements of framing, staging, and lighting are used to shape the experience of these morals.

Zdenko Mandušić
Author: Zdenko MandušićCountry: US
Zdenko Mandušić is pursuing a joint Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures and Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. His areas of study are Russian/Soviet and Yugoslav cinema, film theory, and Russian and Southeast European Literature. He plans to write a dissertation based around the question of how the desire for innovation has inspired technological developments.

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