Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Czech Beauty in Trouble

If you tour Prague with a local, they will periodically point out the waterlines from the 2002 flood, their first legitimate crisis post-Communism. The flood devastated many Czech families, including the highly dysfunctional married couple of Jan Hřebejk’s Beauty in Trouble (trailer here), opening in New York this Friday.

Even without the flood, Marcela and Jarda would probably be creating drama to strain their relationship, but it has added financial stresses. All that holds them together is their sexual codependence. When Jarda’s chop shop is busted, it presumably spells the end of their marriage. In probably the oddest “meet-cute” in film, Marcela attracts the attentions of Evžen Beneš, the wealthy older owner of the fateful car sending Jarda up the river, while both cool their heels in the police station.

Marcela also faces family issues, forced to move in with her mother and new step father, who can only be described as icky. His scatological and sexual preoccupations might not be outright dangerous, but are certainly creepy. Yet her mother remains willfully blind. Eventually, the disgusted daughter accepts the free use of an apartment in the Beneš family home, while he tends to business in his Tuscan villa.

The Beneš family, evidently taking a cue from the Hungarian Revolution, expatriated to Italy after 1956, where they obviously made good. Now he represents security for Marcela, but cannot match the sexual lure of her deadbeat husband. Inspired by the Robert Graves poem of the same name, Beauty is about Marcela’s uncertain choice between the financial and emotional stability of Beneš and the lustful chaos of Jarda.

The generous Beneš, played by Josef Abrhám looking like a distinguished Michael McDonald, often finds his trust betrayed by those around him, as Marcela is unable to resist Jarda’s charms, while another tenant attempts to swindle him out of his family house using a technicality in post-Communist reclamation laws. Not knowing how common the Beneš surname is in the Czech Republic, I cannot say if he is intended to recall Edvard Beneš, the democratic president emasculated by the Communist coup of 1948. It is safe to say Beneš the expat has been identified as a potential mark, too gentle and gentile to offer resistance to those looking to take.

Beauty is a very sexually frank film, but like Eyes Wide Shut, its sex scenes are only erotic out of context. Within the film their implications are excruciatingly uncomfortable, often leading to nervous laughter at the screening I attended. This is not Sex in the City, more like Last Tango, without the explicit excesses.

The noble Beneš is an easy character to like, even when pushed to his breaking point. The rest of the cast of characters, including Marcela, the Beauty herself, can be quite trying. As a result, Beneš’ continuing attraction is often difficult to understand. When the film does connect emotionally, it is usually with the help of Hřebejk’s shrewd use of music, particularly the songs of Glen Hansard, including the Oscar winning “Falling Slowly” from Once. However, Beauty is a surprisingly intellectual examination of passion, cold rather than hot-blooded. It opens at the Angelika on Friday.