Milos Forman’s international breakthrough comes to UK DVD via Second Run and is reviewed by clydefro.
Milos Forman’s A Blonde in Love, the second feature made by the Czech director and an international breakthrough by most any standard, captures what feels like a very distinct time and place, and, like so many great films, welcomes the viewer in warmly enough to create a connection of plausibility. The universal quality given to the situations and emotions displayed in the film is perhaps its strongest attribute, and might also be why such an apparently modest movie still makes for a viewing experience today that remains both highly enjoyable and substantial.
It’s, ostensibly, limited by an Academy ratio frame and visually straightforward, black and white appearance that, due to realities of print conditions, seems unlikely to abandon its almost muddy look in favor of a pristine, modern image any time soon. The ambitions are kept in check by a short running time measuring less than an hour and a half and a misleadingly narrow focus on the interactions of a single character, a teenage girl. The film, too, is in Czech, a language few outside its modestly populated native country would have reason to know, and takes place in locations that emit a certain depressed aura about them. The faces and performances of the amateur-filled cast of actors hardly resemble the usual model for a hit. This, as we see in the film, is of enormous importance, and it underlines the idea that flaws are sometimes not so easily defined. Lead actress Hana Brejchová, as Andula, is relaxed enough to be natural. The rest of the pieces needed for her character basically fall into place on the strength of that patience. She has a number of tough scenes, with Andula being defined particularly by the mix of strength and starry-eyed hope she displays by bounding off on her own to Prague for an unannounced visit to a one-night stand. In the process, Brejchová consistently denies the hysterics other performers might have employed by instead using a more casual, though effective, approach.
Brejchová partner in that one-night stand, Vladimir Pucholt as traveling musician Milda, gives the most obvious of the film’s performances but it fits since the character is supposed to be just a little too smooth. The other instance where having the actor or actors stay somewhat unpolished really pays off is in the dance hall sequence, which forms the first of three distinctive acts in the film. It’s clearly the most comedic portion of a movie that deftly balances several different tones throughout its duration. The humor here can be dry, bordering on cruel but in a guiltless way. Three soldiers, all approaching middle age and none a winner in the looks sweepstakes, sit at a table and eye Andula and her two friends. The girls privately express embarrassment even at the thought of any interaction, yet ultimately yield after the men send them a bottle of alcohol and the night wears on a little. The way that Forman unfurls the film’s best bit where the bottle initially goes to a table of three other young women seems like a product of this particular part of the world. It works despite, or maybe because of, being understated. I can’t imagine an American or even British film being allowed to orchestrate the scene so well.
The remainder of the time we spend with the soldiers as they awkwardly interact with the much younger girls lays some of the groundwork for the larger themes of the film. It helps define the love of the title as something not quite so permanent as many people’s take on the word. Availability and opportunity and circumstance all seem to play a big role. Though nothing ultimately happens between the girls and the soldiers, there’s a splinter effect that occurs. One soldier does seem to find his love for the night and Andula’s lurking around leads to her meeting Milda, after a mutual grin or two while he was playing piano at the dance. Andula already has a boyfriend, but he’s recently disappointed her. The off and on shyness she shows Milda isn’t without some flirtation and general interest in the slick pianist. He’s less smitten than simply interested, or maybe challenged to some extent. The moments Forman spends with the two lovers reveal a lot about the characters and their aspirations. She’s there because she wants to believe in something beyond the night but he isn’t, and that’s made rather clear from his clumsy seduction techniques.
Where the choreographed heartbreak and increased pathos begin to play out is in the third section of the picture. It’s worth noting that this is when Andula garners the viewer’s sympathy, or mine at least. Before this, she comes across as almost empty and it’s difficult to understand whether she’s sincerely looking for love or just taking a passive drift centering on her looks. This is not a character with an internal monologue being shared or whose motivations are always transparent. But when she goes out on her own to Prague, in search of something to quell her loneliness either in the long or short term, and it’s not entirely certain which it is, Andula finally takes an active step of her own. This is a clicking moment, and a call back of sorts to an earlier scene that has to have a bit more exposition to gain its full importance. What she finds in Prague is, in keeping with the film’s tone, full of both sadness and a specific kind of humor. It’s a bite that gives the movie an afterlife in the viewer’s consciousness.
This region-free DVD release of A Blonde in Love comes via Second Run. It’s PAL and the disc is single-layered. I believe this is the first time Second Run and the Criterion Collection, which put out Forman’s film back in 2002 under its American title Loves of a Blonde, have tread the same path. It’s interesting, actually, to see Second Run take on this title. The label has focused sharply on Czech New Wave films with welcome consistency but tends to often introduce lesser known works usually without definitive-level editions in the English language market rather than polishing off established classics already out in acceptable editions elsewhere. A Blonde in Love was Oscar-nominated upon release and is firmly in the canon.
The film’s original 1.33:1 aspect ratio is respected here in a progressive transfer. If measured against the earlier Criterion offering, the most striking differences are the contrast, with Second Run’s image generally brighter, and sharpness, which also goes in favor of Criterion. Damage is present in both, notably a vertical scratch that stubbornly runs the length of the image. Speckles of dirt and debris appear as well. Criterion’s frame is a bit narrower than that of Second Run, and there are times also when damage at the edge is more prominent on the former transfer. The comparisons I’ve included here have the Criterion Collection on the left and Second Run on the right. Neither approaches perfection but the Criterion is probably more pleasing to the eye.
Audio here is a restored Czech mono track. The two-channel sound makes for a modest though satisfactory listen. Dialogue and music are as clear as need be. No problems arise with the track. Optional English subtitles are provided and are white in color.
There are no extra features on the disc. (The Criterion Collection’s release has an interview with Milos Forman and a deleted scene from the film.) Picking up the slack is Michael Brooke’s lengthy piece in the 20-page booklet found inside the transparent keepcase. Brooke begins by artfully relaying the entire plot of the film, with comments sprinkled here and there, before sharing quite useful information on the picture’s production, release, and reaction. I especially liked the inclusion of excerpts from contemporary reviews in Brooke’s write-up.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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