Sex, death and the city (i.e., Prague)

Smoldering Ana Geislerov

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 12, 2008 10:10AM (EDT)

Menemsha Films

Marcela (Ana Geislerová) at work in "Beauty in Trouble."

You could make a list pages and pages long of foreign filmmakers who deserve -- based on artistic merit or simple fairness, if those aren't laughable concepts at this point -- to be noticed by the culturally overdosed public of these United States. But if we reframe the question so it's about foreign directors whose work a plausible American audience might actually enjoy, then the list is shorter, and the Czech writing-directing duo of Petr Jarchovský and Jan Hrebejk are somewhere near the top.

Beginning with "Big Beat," their riotous 1993 musical about the coming of rock 'n' roll to late-1950s Communist Czechoslovakia, screenwriter Jarchovský and director Hrebejk have been making ambitious, satirical melodramas that blend straightforward storytelling and social criticism, but are also tinged with a distinctively eastern European (and possibly distinctively Czech) appetite for the grotesque and surreal. They're a huge deal in the not-insignificant Czech film industry and have been twice nominated for foreign-language Oscars (for "Divided We Fall" in 2000 and "Up and Down" in 2004). With that and the proverbial two bucks apiece, of course, they can ride the bus the next time they're in L.A. or New York.

You could describe their new film, "Beauty in Trouble," as pretty much what it sounds like, a romantic fable about a beautiful working-class wife and mom (the amazing Ana Geislerová), torn between a filthy rich and perfectly lovely older man who offers her a future and the bad-boy criminal she married who offers her a little of what she needs Right Now, if you know what I mean and I think you do. (The title is actually drawn from a poem by Robert Graves.) But along with this downscale "Sex and the City" plotline comes a ruthless and hilarious portrait of contemporary Czech society as a realm of bottomless hypocrisy and corruption, as well as a roster of ludicrous yet somehow compelling supporting characters.

Lithe, long-limbed Marcela (Geislerová), clad in a delightful, borderline-trashy collection of knockoff designer togs, ponders the choice between sexy lowlife Jarda (Roman Luknár) and leonine, loaded expat Evzen (Josef Abrhám), whose satellite-security-equipped Volvo has been, um, obtained by Jarda under dubious circumstances. She must also contend with a cadaverous, almost ghoulish stepfather (Jirí Schmitzer, in a role so memorably loathsome he threatens to steal the whole movie), a haunted harridan mother (Jana Brejchová) skilled at all forms of denial and a dotty, hyperreligious mother-in-law (Emília Vásáryová) who sleeps outside in her car rather than stray away from her grandkids. All those names won't mean much to American viewers, but as usual Hrebejk has assembled a who's who of top-notch Czech actors.

Irrelevant but interesting: You'll hear Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová's Oscar-winning song "Falling Slowly" on the soundtrack of "Beauty in Trouble," which was released in Europe well before John Carney's "Once." Everyone involved has sworn up and down that the song was actually written for "Once," but that Hrebejk heard it, liked it and stuck it in his already-completed film. So, no, the academy's not going to make them give the prize back.

In general, Hrebejk's films look like standard-issue European social realism, with lots of hand-held camerawork and drawn-out, talky scenes. But there's a delirious undercurrent to them, which alternately runs scalding and ice-cold, and is oddly akin to the surrealism of his Czech countryman Jan Svankmajer. It's almost as if Hrebejk were making two different films at once. The one on top, you could say, is a sentimental, well-played and conventionally satisfying relationship drama about a woman who loves two different guys for different reasons.

In the caustic, cautionary fable underneath that story, Marcela's choice looks like a pallid fantasy of escape from a country that Hrebejk depicts, with almost malicious delight, as one of Europe's deformed stepchildren. It's a place where the long-suffering poor are doltish and criminal, the middle class is poisoned by a corrupt and thoroughly second-rate version of capitalism, and an anonymous landscape of wine bars and coffeehouses has grown from the ruins of Marxism. Even Evzen, who has lived in the West since the '60s, is not immune from the film's scouring eye: While undeniably decent (and even naive about what his homeland has become), he's a piss-elegant gourmand so detached from his native country that he's reading "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" in Italian.

There are several Hrebejk-Jarchovský films I haven't seen, but with its ample sex appeal, buzzing narrative density and at-least-maybe-happy ending, "Beauty in Trouble" might be their most exportable and accessible yet. It's a rich, uneven, puzzling work about sex and death and loving people you also hate, whose balance between compassion and contempt for its characters -- and between pleasing and mocking the audience -- is never entirely clear. I liked it a lot and it bugged me and it definitely doesn't all work. But it's only the tip of the iceberg from one of Europe's most intriguing filmmaking teams, whose best may still lie ahead.

"Beauty in Trouble" opens June 13 at the Angelika Film Center in New York, with more cities likely to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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