The Party and the Guests [1966] – A Highly Relevant Parable about Bland Conformity

Jan Nemec is one of the influential film-makers of the outstanding Czechoslovak New Wave movement. He graduated from the famous Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) and made the excellent short film ‘A Loaf of Bread’ (1960). The themes and formal language of the short were expanded in his brilliant debut feature Diamonds of the Night (1964), a tale of two young men fleeing from Nazi death-camp. Around the same time, Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel, Vera Chytilova and many others made formally radical films on the themes of political and social repressions. Although these Czech film-makers’ stylistic spectrum differed, their ideological parameters more or less remained the same. The extraordinary film movement was immediately suppressed following the Soviet invasion to crackdown reformist movements in Prague (the brief period of political liberalization in 1968 was known as ‘Prague Spring’). Nemec released his follow-up feature The Party and the Guests (‘O slavnosti a hostech’) in 1966, which the authorities banned immediately. It was again released in 1968 during the Prague Spring, but soon was 'banned forever’.

Jan Nemec creative flurry bestowed another gem of a film titled ‘Martyrs of Love’ and a documentary short, 'Oratorio for Prague' (Nemec captured on film the Soviet’s invasion in August 1968). Nemec always faced troubles with Czech authorities and the Soviet invasion almost brought his career to an end (he was in only in his early thirties). Soon, he moved to Paris, and other European countries, and eventually to US. But he found it hard to work in these film industries and mostly did TV movies, documentaries. He also worked as professional wedding videographer. Nemec returned to Czechoslovakia, but the years of marginalization didn’t allow his profound artistry to attain a foothold in the film industry. Nemec died on March 18, 2016 in Prague. Nemec’s three distinct, absurdist movies (all the three runs for little more than an hour), however, represents themes and issues that’s riddled with universality. The Party and the Guests – Nemec’s most political film – still remains as a testament to his great artistry.

Jan Nemec’s films are known for formal experimentation, unorthodox characterizations, and theatrical staging with surrealistic touches. He neither had desire for social realism nor conventional narrative approach. In the absurdist drama ‘The Party and the Guests’, there are no central characters. Movie historian Peter Hames mentions that parallels have been drawn between Nemec’s film and Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (although Hames states Nemec didn’t see Bunuel’s film or even Renoir’s Rules of the Game). The script for Party and the Guests with its overt allegorical representations was written by Nemec and Ester Krumbachova, a costume designer as well as a script writer, whom Nemec married. The film is set in beautiful Czech countryside, where a group of seven bourgeois city-people are enjoying their picnic. They have just had their feast and talks about things that are inscrutable. The group’s (3 couples and one man) interactions are shown through mid-shots of cross-cut faces. Despite the vast countryside, this approach creates a sense of claustrophobia.

The interaction almost comes to an end with the distinguished group observing the parade of boisterous wedding-party marchers on the top of the hill. The women quickly wash themselves and they all make their way over the hill. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a group of serious-faced guys (all of them stare at the camera) led by an eccentric young guy Rudolf block the path of bourgeois people. Rudolf’s arrival escalates the ‘party’ as he holds the ‘guests’ inside a circle-like mark on the ground. Surrounded by tough-looking men, Rudolf grills them with vague questions and deters them from leaving the circular ‘mark’ (two stones are kept to represent a ‘door’ for this interrogation room). One of the guests named Karel disdains the charade and walks off, who is harassed by Rudolf and his thugs. The chaos comes to an end, when the party’s host arrives, a benevolent man dressed in a white-suit. It is revealed that bourgeois couples are guests of this gentleman’s birthday party and Rudolf is the man’s adopted son. The situation is smoothed out and apologies are exchanged and accepted. The banquet takes place in a beautiful lakeside setting. But the party host’s delight doesn’t last long as he is announced that one of the guests (one of the picnickers) has run away (clearly annoyed by the absurdity). The ‘benevolent’ host wonders why this guest would refuse this ‘happiness’.

Obvious parallels could be drawn between host’s decision to track down missing guest and the picnic-goers, embroiled in passivity, with the totalitarian regime where dissension is frowned upon and where general public live under the pretense of ‘happiness’. But the non-specific situation, riddled with healthy dose of Kafkaesque abstract elements, doesn’t restrict Nemec’s parable within a rigid political framework (of the Czech communist regime). The actions, reactions, and passivity of the ‘guests’ could be transferred to different social or political context, without diminishing its relevance. Nemec and Ester’s characters face the dangers of becoming types than representation of real people. But the writers’ suggestion of the underlying basic human behavior makes it realistic. The film is a treatise on how irrational human nature can be sometimes; on how selfishness and the desire to be part of a ‘group’ can influence our behavior. It’s also a smart examination of how the ‘gentlemen hosts’ (all around the world) always demands full conformity (and rattled by little opposition).

Rudolf and the white-suited ‘host’ are the two different, but equally morbid personas of constricted political or social structure. By the time Rudolf’s antics reaches a peak, the host intervenes, and we breathe sigh of relief as if he is the savior. However, we soon learn how the host’s authoritarianism is equally unpleasant as Rudolf’s. The ‘tough-guys’ and ‘benevolent superior’ eventually join together to hunt down the single, non-conforming force (other succumbed to authority have the banquet to enjoy). The passive people (or guests) allow the existence of this ‘system’ which eventually turns them into victims (even they are afraid to cross a simple line marked on the ground). After the film’s release and ban, director Nemec clarified that his ‘depiction of authoritarianism could be applied anywhere’. With the final shot, where dogs’ barking escalates (as the end-credits roll up), we can reflect on how this timeless, absurd scenario could be applied anywhere around the world (in both ends of ideological spectrum); in any situations where non-conformist behavior is seen as a foolish thing.

One of the interesting aspects of The Party and the Guests is the confusing dialogues. The random bit of conversations never makes sense and rarely clarifies the character’s predicament. The interactions are designed to confirm the absurdity of the situation. Like most of the movies of Czech New Wave, Nemec denies conventional characterization where viewers identify with the characters. The only character whom we could consider as some sort of ‘hero’ – the non-conforming guest – doesn’t talk much and never explains about his decision to run away (even he runs away off-the-screen). These forms of dialogues and characterizations resonant very well with the distinct visual style, which has many strange montage shots of faces. All these aspects work in tandem to create a unique, unsettling atmosphere that doesn’t belong to a specific time.

The Party and the Guests (68 minutes) is a playful allegory on how people find it easy to enclose themselves within a rigid system of thought. It’s also an astute interrogation of the different masks worn by totalitarian regimes. 


You Were Never Really Here [2017] – A Lean & Potent Depiction of Trauma and Loss

Scottish film-maker Lynn Ramsay’s works are often about broken people. Through the inner burden carried by these isolated damaged people, she tries to explore the underbelly of a debased society. Ramsay’s aesthetics are at once intimate, fragmentary, psychologically disturbing, and elegantly beautiful as she uses formal dexterity to turn her film into an original work. On the first look, Ramsay’s three feature films – Ratcatcher (1999), Morvern Callar (2002), and We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) – seem like simple dramatic exercise on trauma. Yet her aural-visual trance-narratives combined with the narrow subjective field-of-vision turns the dramatic material into an immensely watchable poem of chaos and carnage. Ramsay’s new film You Were Never Really Here (2017), which received a standing ovation at last year’s Cannes (also won best screenplay and best actor award in its unfinished state), once again broods on the traumatic experiences of an emotionally repressed individual. However, unlike the female protagonists of the director’s last two films, the male protagonist here is a violent guy – a hit-man with certain codes of ethics. 

Apart from Ratcatcher, Lynn Ramsay’s other two films are based on books. But what’s fascinating and idiosyncratic about her adaptations is that they aren’t straightforward filmic conversions. Ramsay is the kind of film-maker who involves herself from scripting process to casting to set-design. So she takes a book and essentially strips off the story’s elements to fit into her own vision. In retrospect, one could appreciate both the film and book versions, and entirely for different reasons. You Were Never Really Here (2017) is based upon Jonathan Ames’ novella ‘Bored to Death’. It tells the story of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a spooky lumbering figure. He’s a suicidal, middle-aged guy who is hinted to be a military vet stricken with PTSD. Joe lives with his elderly, ailing mother (Judith Roberts) in New York. This ghost of a man who haunts his own life actually works as a hit-man for a mysterious boss. When we first see Joe, his face is encased inside a plastic bag, a voice bidding him to ‘do better’ [Ramsay’s Ratcatcher also opened with the image of a boy suffocating himself, an obvious metaphor to reflect the characters’ emotional adversity]. There are no flashbacks to explain Joe’s post-traumatic stress in detail. What we get is few subliminal images – images erupting from Joe’s subconscious – that imply irreparable suffering in childhood and peeks into other atrocious things he has committed.

Following the ‘plastic-bag’ visuals, we see Joe in close-ups, cleaning up the things after finishing his brutal assignment. A bloody hammer is wiped off with toilet tissue, photographs are burned, and he slogs down the hotel’s hallway with his shoulders downcast bearing the figurative cross. Joe is dexterous when it comes to delivering violence, and he specializes in rescuing kidnapped or runaway children and returning them to their families. His new job involves a senator who wants to find and rescue his daughter Nina Votto (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a brothel full of underage girls. When Joe sets out to save the girl, the situation escalates and he is caught in broader conspiracy. Director Ramsay keeps the sense of violence floating in the air. Yet we don’t often see the brutal bloody acts; we only discover the shocking mess left in its wake.

Watching Joe moving through the streets in a car, absorbing its atmosphere of seediness, instantly reminds us of Travis Bickle, also about a military vet (Vietnam War) who sets out to rescue a teenage girl from the depths of human depravity. But Joe doesn’t carry out vigilante justice, and unlike Scorsese’s masterpiece, Ramsay’s vision is more intimate and narrow (focusing on the effects of violence on a individual’s psyche). The less talkative Joe shares most of his characteristics with lean, mean hit-men inhabiting Jean-Pierre Melville’s existential crime features. More than Taxi Driver (1976), this film bears the shades of John Boorman’s underappreciated classic Point Blank (1967), a touch of Steven Soderbergh’s cool crime yarn The Limey (1999), and stylistically attunes to Alice Winocour’s Disorder (2015) – also about a bulky ex-soldier (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) with PTSD. And, Joaquin Phoenix’s bewildering performance imbues the narrative with perfect emotional compass. Phoenix’s evocative gestures and eccentricity gives the character the kind of true haunting looks. Considering how the movie is narratively understated, it is important to note how Phoenix brings fine emotional thrust to the proceedings. The actor also instills Joe with innate decency that’s obvious in the sweet banter he carries with his ailing mother, which only later makes his raging inner battles more resonant.

Despite all the influences derived and a masterful performance at the center, director/writer Ramsay’s minimalist yet meditative form and aural-visual textures deserves lot more accolades. Working with cinematographer Thomas Townsend, Ramsay provides us an emotional window to see through Joe's eyes as he navigates his quickly unraveling existence. And, on most occasions we are trapped with in Joe’s head-space that we 'feel' the bad things than actually 'see' it.  Sound designer Paul Davies and Johnny Greenwood’s score deserve special mention as they fill the quiet moments with sublime sounds and tones. Even though the director’s previous film is also about a murderous male, this time she adopts a more hard-edged male perspective. This one is a study of a physically strong man who finds himself to be fallible. He can’t truly save others, or at least save himself, and even falls short of killing himself. But the guy slowly grasps for life through the suffocating burden of trauma. This is expressed in a beautiful surrealistic moment as Joe swims up to the river’s surface. In fact, there are other intriguing moments in the film which makes it more than a remarkable exercise in style. For example, the way Ramsay undercuts brutality by adding unanticipated moment of tenderness: a gruesome face-off between Joe and a hired-gun ends on a strange note of singing, an incredible note of sensitivity and compassion amidst ruthless acts. The plotting does seem too lean and frustratingly fragmentary at times so as to wholly rely on the moments of startling ethereal imagery. Nevertheless, You Were Never Really Here (90 minutes) is a precious little mood piece which intimately studies a traumatized soul’s cracked psyche. 


The Third Murder [2017] – An Impressively Ambiguous and Obscure Courtroom Drama

Author, journalist, and Asia editor of the Times Richard Lloyd Parry’s true-crime book ‘People Who Eat Darkness’ (published in 2010) acutely delineates the peculiarities of the Japanese judiciary system among many other things, which I think helped me better understand the inherent conflicts in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s courtroom drama The Third Murder (Sandome no satsujin, 2017). Central among the facts in Mr. Parry’s book is the conviction rate in criminal trial: 99.8 percent in Japan compared to 70-75 percent in Western courts. This guaranteed conviction rate, over-reliance on defendant’s confession (than physical evidence), defense lawyer’s limited role, and the system’s obsession to judge a crime based on the motive makes The Third Murder a unique legal narrative, far removed from the theatricality of usual courtroom dramas. While the film could be better understood from the Japanese context, it also raises spate of universal questions regarding judiciary’s interest in moral absolutes, the value of a person’s life, and the ultimate intention behind capital punishment.

 Insipid features like True Crime (1999) and The Life of David Gale (2003) campaigns against the use of capital punishment by weaving a narrative that focuses on a wrong (innocent) person getting convicted. Then there are masterful works like Death by Hanging (1968), In Cold Blood (1967), etc where the convicted ones’ criminality is acutely demonstrated, yet we feel conflicted over the nature of state-sanctioned killing. The Third Murder is more elusive than these two types of films, since the possibilities of understanding the truth remains very slim. The film opens with factory worker Misumi (Koji Yakusho) bludgeoning a man to death, alongside a river bank. He later burns the corpse. The next time we see Misumi, he is already behind  bars and has confessed to the crime. It seems to be a open-and-shut case of murder and robbery (the murdered man’s wallet is missing). Subsequently, we learn that Misumi had only just been released from prison, for killing two loan sharks in the 1980s.

Hotshot defense lawyer Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) takes over the case. He and his defense team try to do the impossible: to reduce the imminent death penalty to life in prison. Shigemori comes to know that it was his judge father (now retired), who had sentenced Misumi three decades prior. It is made clear that Shigemori is less interested in truth and boasts no empathy for Misumi, as he is simply concerned with the technicalities and muddled waters of judicial system that could benefit their case. Anyway, Misumi’s testimony couldn’t be relied upon, since his motivations for committing the crime stays elusive. Misumi is vague, non-committal, deliberately tricky, claiming different reasons for why he killed his factory boss. The man’s varying testimonies makes the defense team pursue distinct line of theories, ranging from insurance murder, blackmailing gone wrong, and rage-type murder. At one point, Misumi breaks down and tells he didn’t commit the murder and that the confession was forced out of him. The sheer madness of these constantly shifting stories clutters our moral compass and further showcases the impossibility of perceiving the crime from objective manner. Even Shigemori’s robust facade crumbles and he is caught up amidst multiple facts and emotional quandaries.

Veteran actor Koji Yakusho’s extraordinary performance is what makes this oddly paced drama mostly work. He is forthcoming and calm at times, later effortlessly slipping into menacing, aloof mood. Although there’s an impenetrable vagueness to the nature of Misumi, Yakusho keeps him affable and extracts empathy at the right occasions. Similar to the last minute twists in Primal Fear (1996) or The Usual Suspects (1995), we expect Misumi to surprise us by delivering the ultimate truth that’s not cloaked in ambiguity. But it never happens, as the character remains opaque till the end, the motive behind the crime unknowable forever. This definitely would frustrate viewers who are expecting a murder mystery or at least a 'whydunnit', in the vein of author Keigo Higashino’s tales (The Devotion of Suspect X). Director Hirokazu Koreeda simply uses the hook of a genre set-up to draw attention to the convoluted legal process. He is quite interested in the question of innocence or guilt, and its expressively mutable position among the sea of doubts. The Third Murder does indict the sky-high conviction rate by solely relying on confessions (forced and otherwise), the unpleasant uncertainty in overseeing the criminal trials, and the sordidness of death penalty (hence the title ‘third murder’, indicating the killing sanctioned by the state). However, Mr. Koreeda never proposes his themes and ideas in the form of bland, straight-forward statement. His view is more nuanced. He uses the deeper drama (or conflicts) between the characters to get to his prime motivations and not the other way around.

The Third Murder does suffer from pacing issues as the ever-changing testimony and the meandering exchanges slightly exasperate us. The lively dynamics with which Koreeda often explores the father/daughter or mother/daughter relationship totally lacks here. Shigemori’s strained relationship with his teenage daughter (Aju Makita) is employed to showcase the lawyer’s remote manner in treating the narrative’s other teenage character (Suzu Hirose). But then the exchanges between these characters are so dry and bloodless, compared to the ones from Koreeda’s intimate family dramas. Koreeda’s script and direction gets whole lot better during the increasingly intense conversations between Shigemori and Misumi. Bolstered by the cinematography of Mikiya Takimoto, the series of thought-provoking and layered tableau set in the small, interview room are brilliantly visualized. The two actors are separated by a Plexiglas wall, and this set-up is filmed from distinct angles, providing myriad of character & theme-based insights. Particularly laudable is the blocking of the performers, where the camera often lingers on one side of glass wall, whereas the other’s reflection is magnificently superimposed (both faces filling the screen), emphasizing on the murky nature of the truth. At one occasion, the staging makes the glass wall non-existent, as Shigemori’s role of ‘judging’ and Misumi role of ‘being judged’ dynamically transforms. These clever, deft visual touches impeccably depict Kore-eda’s ability to work outside his comfort zone (away from the haven of family dramas).

The Third Murder (124 minutes) is a cold, meticulously crafted legal drama from a renowned film-maker, known for his warmth-inducing humanist works. Hirokazu Koreeda has tried to fuse his philosophical thoughts and ultra-nuanced characterizations into a quasi-genre set-up. The result is an intriguing crime puzzle, but one that smartly shies away from delivering due emotional catharsis or delicious twists.


Sandome no satsujin (2017) -- IMDb