FILM SEPTEMBER 10, 2008
'I Served the King of England' (Sony Pictures Classics)
'Momma's Man' (Kino International)
Jiri Menzel is back. This Czech director made a considerable splash in 1967 with Closely Watched Trains, but although he has been busy since then, his later work has not had comparable impact. Now comes I Served the King of England, and strangely, the intervening four decades whisk away. The new film has the same deceptive light touch as the earlier one, a lightness that partially masks the serious subject and yet explores it.
The time frame is again around World War II. In the earlier picture, a young man, obsessed with girls, who starts a job in a country railroad station gets involved in war activities. In the new film, a young man, keen on women, gets jobs in hotel restaurants in a small town and in Prague and eventually is involved in the war. (Menzel based both screenplays on novels by the eminent Bohumil Hrabal.)
In the first shot of the new film, the middle-aged Jan Dítë is released from prison after nearly fifteen years. The metal door clangs behind him, but he can't move: the strap of his bag is caught in the door. This small moment is a promise of the comic glances and wry symbols to come.
The screenplay intertwines Jan's earlier years, explaining how he landed in jail, and his post-prison days. As a youth, this small, eager, but shy fellow had only two ambitions: to be a millionaire and to own a grand hotel. In time he achieves both, but with some surprises en route. The mode in which his life story is told might be called fanciful realism--invention in the service of truth. Everything happens convincingly, yet with mockingly perfect timing, as if it were choreographed. Menzel particularly displays his gift for transmuting the stolid or grim with shots at the ends of episodes. A smugly successful salesman lays out his cash on the floor of his hotel room in orderly ranks. Then the entire cache floats up off the floor airily as if to taunt his smugness. Or: four prisoners sit around a small table plucking goose down and piling it on the table. Then the goose down rises and covers the screen in a sort of bitter loveliness.
Jan (whose last name, Dítë, means child) moves from post to post in increasingly splendid hotels, aspiring to be one of the highly skilled, haughtily comported waiters. (The waiters' behavior is a species of samurai code. When the haughtiest of them trips while carrying a tray, he goes berserk, smashing things, and the other waiters understand.) The film's title has nothing to do directly with the story: it is simply a fact that a head waiter mentions to the awed Jan. The title underscores vacuous stiff tradition and the emptiness of Jan's awe.
Along with his varied waiting experiences, he encounters women. In the confected tenor of this film, absolutely every young woman he meets is gorgeous. When he visits brothels, they--it is a treasured European myth--are always homey and are staffed with good-hearted beauties.
War comes. Germans come. And here also comes the part of the story that deepens what has happened before. Jan falls in love with and marries Líza, a German girl who is a fanatical Nazi. Even her rebarbative zeal gets the Menzel touch. When Jan and Líza make love in their bedroom, she pushes his head to one side while he is slogging away so that she can gaze at a photo of Hitler. Soon she insists on joining the German army, and when she returns, she has for him a collection of valuable stamps taken from deported Jews. Conditioned by the petty hopes and ideals of his youth, Jan sells those stamps. They are the source of his millions and his own hotel.
Menzel is apparently asking us to realize that such a marriage, such a malfeasance, was possible for a man who, though pleasant enough, was a slave of acceptances. Morality, Menzel's film implies, is for some individuals a matter of atmospheric pressure. This doesn't make them admirable, just--with some generosity--understandable. Sixty years after World War II, Hrabal and Menzel were able to acknowledge these grainy discomforts about their fellow Czechs--and about people generally. And, rightly, they didn't put the shortcomings in a generally reprehensible man.
Then the war ends. A hotel swimming pool in Prague that had been filled with nude Aryan beauties, brought for impregnation by German soldiers, is now filled with nude male amputees. The Communists arrive. When Jan boasts that he is in good shape with fifteen million, he gets fifteen years in the clink. The valuable postage stamps fade figuratively and visually away.
The post-prison years, which interweave through all the above, show us a graying Jan working as a road builder in the country, re-educated in a certain sense, simplified by being freed of simple-mindedness. But here, too, the early piquant tone returns. To keep the post-prison section from seeming tractarian, the film brings in a lively young woman who promises spice.
Oldrich Kaiser is appealingly seasoned as the older Jan. Ivan Barnev, in the larger role of the young Jan, provides eagerness and modesty and bursts of passion. Julia Jentsch as Líza is scarily fervent. Menzel, now in his seventies, sees his countrymen in a wide range of behaviors, and sees them with honesty and comprehension and a faint amusement that includes himself. Best of all, the minor protocols and major assaults of the characters are fused, paradoxically, by a truly lyrical talent.
Momma's Man is an act of daring. Azazel Jacobs, the American writer-director whose third feature this is, has made a film without a story, let alone a plot. As the picture moves along, we see that nothing is going to happen in any narrative or dramatic sense. We are meant to reside, to linger, in a mood, a state of mind. This is hardly the method of even such rarefied artists as Ozu and Bresson: it is less a form of film than of poetry or some kinds of short fiction. But this view soon increases our pleasure: as we realize the picture's special being, we also realize that it is holding us.
Mikey, the central character, is a former New Yorker in his thirties who now lives in California with his wife and child. The film takes place in New York, where Mikey has come to visit his parents. They live in a huge Tribeca loft, which is marvelously cluttered with every kind of bric-a-brac--furniture, pictures, souvenirs, a piano. This attic full of his past now embraces and captures Mikey, mostly because he has arrived at an age when it is possible.
He wants to stay. He loves his wife and child, and he speaks to his wife, though not as often as she calls; but he keeps postponing his return to California. He doesn't talk much about his feelings, but his parents understand and, much as they love him, do not try to keep him. Despite the film's (inadequate) title, he never thinks in terms like "second childhood" or "return to the womb": he only knows that he is back in an environment, physical and temperamental, that he once loved. Without any loss of his feeling as husband and father, he finds it difficult to break loose.
What he is discovering, we can see, is that the life a person lives, no matter how pleasant, is only one life that might have been lived. For a few days, Mikey is back in the time before he had to choose. He has no large frustrated ambition in him: he just revisits the self he once was before commitment and, for a few days, dwells in that self.
Of course, as treated here, this is a male prerogative. His wife may have or maybe will have many of the same feelings, but she has to take care of the baby. Mikey, liberated, has the leisure to feel melancholy. He meets an old girlfriend for coffee--she has her baby with her--and they remember a high school date. He sees an old male friend, with whom he has some male-pal bonding. But mostly he just breathes--not the air of a paroled convict, but the air of a human being tacitly discovering that he is on a demarcated journey to mortality.
Jacobs is greatly aided by Matt Boren, who plays Mikey--and in an unusual way. Boren's face and persona are not striking. He could be the man who has come to fix the telephone. The fact that Boren, as unpoetic a type as possible, fully sounds the depths of the theme is a warrant of the picture's universality. Hamlet has to look like Hamlet, but Mikey, so to speak, doesn't have to look like Mikey.
Jacobs has cast his own parents as Mikey's parents; they give their extraordinary attic affectionate verity. Ken Jacobs is a well-known maker of experimental films, and his wife Flo is an artist. I don't know where they actually live, but they could live right here. Their son uses a handheld camera a bit more than he needed to, but possibly he wanted to emphasize the somewhat informal quality of the production. In any case, he dared to make this unusual film, and he made it memorable.
Stanley Kauffmann is The New Republic's film critic.
By Stanley Kauffmann