Friday, October 11, 2019

The Lovable “Loves of a Blonde”

Long before the late Milos Forman was a two-time Oscar winner (for directing 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and 1984’s Amadeus), he was a valued member of what’s been called the Czech New Wave. Starting as a documentary filmmaker, he moved on to low-key black & white dramas that realistically depict the daily lives of his countrymen and women. His second feature, known in English as Loves of a Blonde, earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 1967. It also earned him a trip to Hollywood, where he was warned by a friendly publicist not to expect future success in America. (True, he lost out in the 1967 Oscar race to Claude Lelouch and his uber-schmaltzy A Man and a Woman, but Forman—from the 1970s onward—quickly became known as an essential American director.)

It’s taken me all this time to see Loves of a Blonde, but it was worth the wait. Not that this is a film with a huge excitement quotient. No gunfights; no special effects; no wild and crazy extravaganzas. (Forman’s slightly later The Fireman’s Ball is an outrageously satiric comedy about Czech bureaucratic ineptitude, a film that was “banned forever” once the Soviets marched into Czechoslovakia in 1968.) Instead, Loves of a Blonde is a small wistful story, about a young Czech woman looking for romance.. Andula, like most of her friends, works in a shoe factory in a small town with little to offer. The women are housed in dormitories, and since the local female/male ratio is 16 to 1, they have few chances to enjoy the company of the opposite sex. Their boss persuades the local government to billet a military unit in the area, in hopes of improving everyone’s social life. It mostly doesn’t work: there’s a long, funny sequence, set during a mixer at a drab social hall, in which the mostly middle-aged army reservists (some of them married) try gracelessly to entice the young women into the nearby woods for some serious canoodling.

Andula, though, hits it off with the event’s young piano player, who (after a battle with a stuck window shade) talks her into bed. He also off-handedly gives her his address in Prague. In no time flat, she’s arriving with a little suitcase, ready to pursue the relationship further. Only problem: he lives with his parents, and they’re not at all happy to put her up for the night.  

Years after this film was made, Forman was videotaped talking about how he made it. It all began with a real-life incident: while walking one night down a Prague street, he encountered a young woman with a suitcase. She told him she had come to the big city to see her boyfriend, but the address he’d given her was a fake. This encounter sparked the film, which Forman cast mostly with first-time actors. The leading role was memorably played by Hana Brejchová, the younger sister of Forman’s then-wife, for whom this was a first film. Though her piano-playing lover was an experienced young actor, his exasperated parents were total amateurs. How did Forman get what he wanted from non-professionals? He explains that he never gave them a script, but instead simply talked through the emotions he sought to elicit. Without needing to replicate a script’s exact wording, they effectively delivered the mood he wanted them to convey. And the big mixer scene benefitted from his use of two cameras. One was fixed on the main actors; the other swept the hall, capturing the emotions of everyone there assembled. It worked: true slice-of-life.

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