Adapted from Alfred Jarry’s absurdist play, “King Ubu” serves as an impressive visual demo for cameraman F.A. Brabec, previously known as lenser for Czech wunderkind Jan Sverak (“The Elementary School”). Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Brabec’s talents as a first-time helmer. Flashes of Peter Greenaway, Jean-Luc Godard and Monty Python inspire the movie visually, but insufficient budget, vision and tastelessness (it’s just not raunchy enough) undercut the promise. Silliness substitutes for Jarry’s subversive naughtiness, and pic’s future looks limited to specialized fests and TV sales.
The film sets Jarry’s fin de siecle classic in Central Europe’s northern climes. Ubu (Marian Labuda), an uncouth Polish army officer, is goaded into assassinating good King Wenceslaus (Boleslav Polivka) by his vulgar wife, Ma Ubu (crudely overacted by Czech pop star Lucie Bila). In a perverse homage to the play’s puppet-theater beginnings, members of the royal family are brought before Ubu for slaughter dangling like marionettes.
Ubu’s attempted rape of the king’s pubescent daughter (Ester Geislerova), hindered by a most effective chastity belt, leads to a droll escape, with the princess dropping chunks of clanking metal underwear as she hotfoots it across the spectacularly unimpressive countryside. Now initiated in “the art of multiplying,” she seduces her royal cousin in a cleverly filmed sequence involving only a piano, a flashlight’s beam emanating from under its lid and the sound of plunking piano strings.
Meanwhile, Ubu’s former accomplice, Capt. M’Nure of Lithuania (Karel Roden), defects back to the widowed queen (Chantal Poullain) and joins forces with the Russian tsar (Ivan Zacharias). Ubu doesn’t stand a chance in the ensuing battle, what with his sexually insatiable wife reducing the ranks of his army, one soldier at a time, to nothing more than exhausted puffs of smoke.
Except for the quickly tiresome use of fast-forward sequences whenever there’s a potentially long crowd scene (though the crowds are pretty sparse), the filming is accomplished and often creative, aided by skillful use of lighting. In one sequence, Brabec swiftly places the setting on the Russian steppes, then pulls back the camera from three onion domes against the snowy horizon to reveal them as hats on the tsar and his aides.
It’s but one example of a fine cameraman’s eye that should inspire collaboration with a deserving director. But with the exception of a devilish performance by Labuda (“My Sweet Little Village,” “The Garden”) in the title role, the actors sometimes seem lost at sea.