Pearls of the Deep

English Title: Pearls of the Deep

Original Title: Perličky na dně

Country of Origin: Czechoslovakia

Studio: Filmové Studio Barrandov

Director: Jiří Menzel, Jan Němec, Evald Schorm, Věra Chytilová, Jaromil Jireš

Producer(s): Frantisek Sandr

Screenplay: Věra Chytilová, Jaromil Jireš, Jiří Menzel, Jan Němec, Evald Schorm

Cinematographer: Jaroslav Kučera

Art Director: Oldřich Okáč

Editor: Miroslav Hájek, Jiřina Lukešová

Runtime: 105 minutes

Genre: Drama

Language: Czech

Starring/Cast: Ferdinand Kruta, Frantisek Havel, Ivan Vyskočil, Vera Mrázkova, Vladimír Boudník, Dana Valtová

Year: 1966

Volume: East European

Synopsis:

A portmanteau film drawing together five Czech New Wave directors, each one adapting and directing one of Bohumil Hrabal’s short stories. In the first episode, a group of motorcycle fanatics swap stories while waiting for a race to start, which is then followed by a terrible crash. In the second two, decrepit old men tell each other tall tales in a hospital room. In the third, two insurance salesmen stumble into the strange life of an eccentric outsider artist and goat skinner. In the fourth, a wedding party and an unexpected death coincide in a small café. And in the fifth and final episode, a young man catches a Romani girl’s eye, and the two become quickly involved in a naively romantic relationship.


Critique:

Perličky na dně/Pearls of the Deep was something of a statement of intent for the Czech New Wave directors who took part in the project. All five were at a crucial point in their careers, with each having made at least a minor stir with an earlier feature, but were yet to deliver their most famous and acclaimed work. The common thread to this anthology is that each of the episodes is adapted from a short story by the writer Bohumil Hrabal, of whose lightly surreal, ironic style the young directors were particularly enamoured. Indeed, Menzel would continue to work with Hrabal throughout his career, most notably on the Oscar-winning Ostře sledované vlaky/Closely Observed Trains (1966) and more recently with Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále/I Served the King of England (2006).

 

As with many films of the portmanteau genre, the episodes vary in quality. But taken together they do cohere into a meaningful, consistent whole. All the stories are noticeably the work of a single authorial voice, though subtle alterations in tone and interpretation make for an intriguing mix. The theme of death could be said to link most of the episodes, though a more striking thematic affinity emerges in their respective fascination with the telling of stories (something intrinsic to Hrabal’s work in many of his novellas, especially ‘Taneční hodiny pro starší a pokročilé’/’Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age’, which unfolds in a single epic sentence). Even in the midst of significant events in the present (a motorcycle race, the aftermath of a suicide), the various protagonists stop to tell stories of past exploits – both true and fabricated – with many of the film’s spaces becoming purgatorial, where one is called upon to explain, justify, or entertain with tales of lives already lived and time already spent. If any single thesis emerges from the film it comes in the form of a question about the nature and function of this kind of life-storytelling.

 

Menzel’s The Death of Mr. Baltazar sets the tone, mixing oddball characters and subtle surrealist gestures with almost documentary-like detail and observation. It is also emblematic in that its subject is the quiet obsessions and fascinations of ordinary ‘folk’. Jan Němec’s entry, The Swindlers, is an economical, didactic and wry portrayal of two old liars approaching the end of their lives in a hospital room. They take turns to spin tales in a space where the past has become their richest source for conversation, contemplation and joy. A jarring temporal cut toward the end of this story serves to shift our perspective on everything we have already heard from the two men, and to ask if it is possible to make a philosophical and moral judgment on the act of making up false histories if they have little impact on those but the liars themselves, who in this case (not unlike Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot) seem to be involved in a contract of mutual satisfaction and delusion. The doctor who tends to their bodies also makes a very negative judgment on their deception. Yet we are drawn to ask: ‘What was in it for them?’ They gained nothing except a little prestige, perhaps a little esteem from their guardians, and mostly a wealth of rich stories to talk to each other about.

 

The centre-piece of the collection is Evald Shorm’s The House of Joy – a gaudy, brightly colourful journey (it is the only episode of the five in colour) into the weird and darkly comic life of a passionate amateur artist. It is equal parts David Lynch and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), though with an undeniably warm heart. Věra Chytilová, who would go on to helm the exceptional Sedmikrásky/Daisies (1966), directs The Globe Buffet, the most strikingly avant-garde piece in the collection. Jaromíl Jireš closes the film on a note of optimism and pugnacious humour, as his tale features two young lovers who discover each other and plan an improbable future together. The director shifts the paradigm so that these stories of the future become the currency of this episode. But even these tales are inflected by the girl’s exotic upbringing as part of a Romani clan with a defiant history literally embedded in the staid streets of a contemporary Prague.

Author of this review: Michael Pigott