Macedonia’s Oscar entry for best foreign-language film measures the lingering psychic cost of an authoritarian body politic in the hyper-vigilance of a deputy minister and his wife during one long night officially earmarked for celebration. Inspired by a novel by Czech writer Jan Prochazka (previously filmed by Karel Kachyna in 1970’s “Ucho”), this sinus-clearing satire from writer-director Ivo Trajkov is set in the early 1990s, when the country broke with the Communist Yugoslav Federation to become an independent republic. Cleverly switching between noir thriller and absurdist black comedy in a way that throws into relief the perils of conformity and paranoia in a transitioning state, “Honey Night” offers hope for the clarifying power of art, if not necessarily for the future of Macedonian democracy.
Set in the Macedonian capital of Skopje in the early 1990s, this boisterously savage black comedy unfolds around two seemingly unconnected causes for celebration. A swank party for the national holiday of the newly independent nation coincides with the 10th wedding anniversary of deputy minister Nikola (Nikola Ristanovski) and his wife, Ana (Verica Nedeska). They make a handsome if robustly unappealing couple. Nikola is a vain, conniving operator who cuts corners at home and work to further his career and his roving eye. Ana’s a neglected drunk whose favorite sport is embarrassing and humiliating her husband. While their young son sleeps unheeded upstairs, the couple endures a very long night of knives together. When they aren’t cooking up conspiracy theories to explain lost keys or sudden power outages, they upstage one another in an orgy of mutual recrimination for the many betrayals in their marriage.
Rumors of a purge of top brass have sped around the party, rendered in black-and-white flashbacks that highlight the intimate connections between Nikola’s billowing paranoia and the couple’s private turmoil. Returning home in full evening regalia, Ana and Nikola ratchet up their petty bickering into a full-blown settling of marital accounts, interrupted by visits from a band of party animals who may be friends, foes or hit men. Is the soused former army buddy who returns Nikola’s house keys a friend bearing warnings, or a flunky of the new regime?
Trajkov’s adroit juggling of fog-bound noir scenery with domestic farce underscores the semiotic hell that imprisons this hapless pair as they read coded significance into every household creak and groan, and every befuddling radio news item about Macedonia’s embrace by NATO on the one hand and our “short-lived democracy” on the other. In a panicked effort to conceal his past adherence to Soviet-style socialism, Nikola sets about flushing potentially incriminating documents down the toilet. The toilet gets the worst of it, and though the couple periodically closes ranks against a real or imagined common enemy, so, too, does the marriage — depending on who has the advantage in the couple’s diminishing grasp of reality.
In a cunning final turn of the screw, we learn whether Nikola has reason to feel safe or sorry. But as the hapless apparatchik explains to his wife, “The truth has nothing to do with it.” You can pick your aphoristic lesson from the wickedly delicious denouement: Beware of what you wish for; just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you; keep your enemies closer; and, inevitably plus ca change, etc. “Honey Night” brings ghoulish elan to what might otherwise be a glum treatise on the close kinship between political madness and human frailty. On the plus side, the fact that Macedonia submitted this gleefully self-critical satire for Oscar consideration surely counts as a modest barometer of political hygiene.