Monday, June 01, 2015

White Elephant Blogathon: 'A Report on the Party and Guests' (1966)

My past assignments for the White Elephant Blogathon (Dr. Dolittle: Million Dollar Mutts, Scorpion Thunderbolt, The Beast of Yucca Flats, Underground Aces) have all been terrible movies with some sort of camp/cult value, but this year I was assigned a movie that's considered an actual classic: Jan Němec's A Report on the Party and Guests, one of the cornerstones of the Czech New Wave of the 1960s, a movie that was banned by the government in its native country when it was first released. I have to admit that I am probably not adequately equipped to comment on this movie, since I am mostly unfamiliar with the Czech New Wave and Czech cinema in general. The only other Czech New Wave movie I've seen is Milos Forman's The Firemen's Ball, which similarly went over my head (although it's a bit more straightforward). So I apologize to whoever picked this movie and was maybe hoping for a more enthusiastic and/or sophisticated commentary.

Party is an extended allegory for the effects of communism and totalitarianism in the former Czechoslovakia, or at least that's what I learned from Google and reviews on Letterboxd, because I would not have gleaned that from watching the movie. On the surface, this is a surreal, mostly nonsensical story about a birthday party in the woods, with some Buñuel-esque (Buñuellian?) touches and some plot elements that reminded me of Michael Haneke's Funny Games. It starts out with a group of friends having a seemingly friendly picnic, although their dialogue is often full of non sequiturs. They head off into the woods, only to be accosted and sort of politely imprisoned (shades of Funny Games) by a group of nebbishy thugs and their childishly cruel leader (played with effectively cheery menace by Jan Klusák).

After being subjected to arbitrary punishments and persecutions, they're rescued by their tormentor's adoptive father, who invites them all to his birthday party, where guests are also subjected to nonsensical rules and rituals. I could sort of discern the social commentary in the movie's middle section, when the free-spirited, apparently non-conformist characters are derided for their actions and imprisoned without being told why. One member of the group attempts to appease their unhinged tormentor, and I suppose he represents the collaborators who capitulate to any sort of authority figure. But once the rich guy throwing the birthday party shows up, chastises his son for playing a cruel joke and invites everyone to his banquet, I completely lost the allegorical thread.

There's enough surreal humor to give the movie a certain amount of surface pleasure, but after a while it all kind of blended together for me. Without a clear sense of what the movie was trying to say, it was just a series of bizarre developments that didn't hold together. I liked Klusák's performance as the ostensible villain, and I appreciated the glimpse into an area of cinema about which I know very little. I think I got a better cultural and history lesson out of this movie than I did any entertainment or engagement, though.

No comments: