The honeymoon phase ends more quickly than expected for a Czech couple when past secrets come to light in Jan Hrebejk’s tense new feature. The prolific helmer nabbed directing honors at the Karlovy Vary fest for this smooth-looking, high-concept melodrama, which along with “Kawaski’s Rose” and “Innocence” constitutes a loose trilogy about past guilt and the possibility of forgiveness. The theme arguably worked best in “Kawasaki’s Rose,” which tackled the weighty subject of Czechs coming to terms with their collaborationist past under communism; here, it involves troubling homophobic violence. Pic opens domestically on Aug. 22, and further fest action is guaranteed.
The action takes place over two days during a bourgeois wedding celebration. Both the fragile, pregnant bride, Tereza (the superlative Ana Geislerova, in her fourth outing with Hrebejk), and the arrogant, macho groom, Radim (Stanislav Majer), were previously married; Tereza wound up with a broken heart, Radim with a now-adolescent son, Dominik (Matej Zikan).
The village optician (Jiri Cerny), who identifies himself as Jan Benda, has a chance encounter with the groom before the ceremony and winds up crashing the reception, held at the beautiful country home of the bride’s parents. As the family members drink, dance and talk, no one pays much attention to the lanky, informally dressed man who is keeping the children occupied. But as Jan’s behavior becomes increasingly peculiar and aggressive, Tereza is determined to get to the bottom of why he has come uninvited.
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As the mystery surrounding Jan and his relationship with Radim deepens, Hrebejk and longtime screenwriter Petr Jarchovsky draw out the tension (and provide some comic relief) with scenes that reveal the troubled married life of Tereza’s bossy younger sister, Renata (Kristyna Fuitova), and her tippling, milquetoast hubby, Milan (David Maj). When Jan materializes at Tereza’s family home in the wee hours of the next morning, signifying a sort of return of the repressed, viewers may well wonder if Hrebejk and Jarchovsky are going the “Fatal Attraction” route. Thankfully, the story turns out rather different, albeit in ways that will make Tereza reconsider her vow to stay with her husband “for better or worse.”
As with “Innocence,” Jarchovsky seems to have trouble ending the film, and a deliberately misleading late scene, designed to make Jan look as if he could be vengeful predator, leads to some literal gay bashing and leaves an unpleasant after-taste. Overall, however, Hrebejk once again proves himself a master of ironic tone and a confident visual stylist. The talented ensemble cast, most of them regulars, hit all the right notes and create nuanced, recognizable characterizations, while craft contributions on the Bohemia-set production prove topnotch. Editor Alois Fisarek skillfully juggles the various plot threads in a manner that delivers as much suspense as possible.
Ironically, theater thesps Majer and Cerny play lovers in Hrebejk’s 2012 film of Fassbinder’s play “Garbage, the City and Death.”