Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 1
 Issue 5 
29 Oct
2001

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Petr Vaclav's Paralelni svety (Parallel Worlds, 2001)CZECH REPUBLIC
Worlds apart
Petr Václav's
Paralelní světy
(Parallel Worlds, 2001)

On one level inviting comparison with Antonioni, Paralelní světy explores a disintegrating relationship. But what exactly, asks Ivana Košuličová, are these "parallel worlds"?


Five years after his feature debut, Petr Václav is back with his second full-length film Paralelní světy (Parallel Worlds, 2001), which at this year's Finále festival of Czech film, held in Plzeň, was voted the best Czech film. Václav, who started his career as a director of film documentaries, first attracted critical attention with his graduation film,Paní Le Murie (Madame Le Murie, 1993) and consolidated his reputation with his first feature Marián (1996), which testified to the problems of social and racial determination and more generally also the theme of human freedom and humiliation. Where Václav's debut Marián was focused on the problems of the individual and society, Paralelní světy looks at a relationship between a man and a woman and their inability to communicate. On the surface, then, Václav's "parallel worlds" are the separate lives of his two protagonists, which move in the same direction without ever quite touching each other. There are, as we shall see, other possible interpretations of the title.

Thirty-something crises

Petr Vaclav's Paralelni svety (Parallel Worlds, 2001)
Paralelní světy : A "horká lovestory" (bitter love story)
The screenplay, written by the director, tells a story of two main characters: an architect named Kryštof (Karel Roden) and a French translator Tereza (Lenka Vlasáková). Both of the figures are people from the director's generation; Prague intellectuals in their thirties who do not have a family and who have been unsuccessfully looking for a "place in life" and find their lives in crisis. Depression, lost hope and daunted courage cause their unhappiness. This is especially true of Tereza who realizes her pregnancy is overpowered by a moment of private and professional crisis.

The lives of both the characters are at breaking point. Mutual non-communication and misapprehension make their situation even more difficult. Kryštof finds a solution from the crisis in his casual rendezvous with his Slovak mistress, while Tereza stays helpless only with herself. When Kryštof in a short dialog refuses the possibility of getting married and having a family, Tereza realizes that none of these things could solve their problems, and she decides to go for an abortion without telling Kryštof.

The story often transfers into surreal, psychoanalytic dreams of the main characters that are telling comments on their inner fears. Most of the time it is Tereza's dreams we watch. But more than that, depressing nightmares express the psychic problems of the characters. Examples of the bizarre and surrealist sequences we see are an endlessly long coffin or big hairy bottoms in detail. Tereza's dream about England, where she is supposed to go with Kryštof in couple months, happens in parched land. While Tereza stands on hot cracked ground, Kryštof seems to be quite satisfied in water. While Tereza considers her dream as bad, Kryštof perceives it as nice and interesting.

Landscape of loneliness

The director's concentration on the relationship between a man and a woman resemble in many ways the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and his "tetralogy of feelings" from the early 1960s.[1] Václav, as Antonioni does, focuses on problems of mutual coexistence and the breakdown of communication between partners or married couples. The misapprehension between a couple ends in infidelity that doesn't solve the situation but, in contrast, expresses the hopelessness of the characters. The sense of alienation, lonesomeness, and "illness of feelings" that are present in Antonioni's tetralogy from the beginning of the 60s are with a similar intensity expressed in Paralelní světy.

Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura (The Adventure, 1960)
L'Avventura : Loneliness on the streets
Guiliana (Monica Vitti), the heroine of Il deserto rosso (The Red Desert, 1964), has the same inclination to depression, and suffers headaches just like Václav's Tereza. The feelings of the main characters are in Antonioni's films the same as in Václav's Paralerní světy presented directly on the screen through the character of the surroundings. The analogy between the environment and psychical condition of the heroine is present in L'Avventura (The Adventure, 1960) with Lydie walking in lonely metropolitan streets; Il Deserto rosso with Guilliana going through the wasteland surrounding a huge complex of a factory; and Paralelní světy with Tereza experiencing her depression in a small and dark Prague flat, just the same as in the environment of the depopulated mountains.

In addition, all of the afore-mentioned heroines go through an erotic romance that lets them forget their unhappiness for a short while. Compared to the inconclusiveness of Antonioni's heroines, Tereza finds her courage and self-confidence. After sleeping with her friend's boyfriend during a stay in the mountains, Tereza seems to forget all her nightmares. She then decides to leave the mountain cottage and goes back to Prague to start a new life without Kryštof.

The silent man

Men in Antonioni's films are similar to Václav's Paralerní světy—non-communicative. They stopped trying to understand their partners and try to escape to noncommitted love affairs. Towards the end Kryštof tries to understand Tereza. But just at the same time Tereza leaves him. While she is getting "stronger," leaving Kryštof and starting to work again, he realizes his loneliness.

But this immediate interpretation of the story based on perception of the film as a testimony about relationship between a man and a woman could be completed more by a conception of the characters as representations of feminine and masculine world. Tereza, as the feminine side, presents the spiritual crisis of a human being and her doubt about hitherto accepted values in life. Kryštof, as the masculine side of a human, presents the male desire to create work and to succeed in professional life. When Tereza stays completely paralyzed, unable of any work or communication with her partner, Kryštof impersonates masculine working and sexual activity.

Petr Vaclav's Paralelni svety (Parallel Worlds, 2001)
Love: A game of two halfs
There are at least two possible ways to look at the film. In the first, based on the interpretation of the film as a story about a breaking relationship, we can see a story about a depressed woman who finally becomes a strong and an independent personality. From the second angle, according to seeing the film as a testimony about the spiritual and material world, we can see a story about the inner, deeply spiritual world that prohibits the human to be active and practical (Tereza) and about the other, opposite, material world that presents the values of the "outside" world.

From this second point of view the ending requires a different interpretation. Tereza doesn't become a strong independent woman; she doesn't win but loses. She leaves her spiritual world and conforms within the material society. Conversely Kryštof discovers the inside, spiritual world and leaves all the present values. From this point of view we can see the whole film as a narration not about Tereza but about Kryštof.

The symbolic ending shows Kryštof on a boat in the middle of the sea. Water, and especially the sea or ocean always belongs among the spiritual elements in art that express the crossing over to the "other world." When we recall the strange—and, for the development of the story, quite needless—episode of Kryštof's car accident that happens towards the end we might arrive at an even more interesting interpretation of the ending in which Kryštof could be perceived as a ghost. Even when our points of view are different, the most important thing is that Petr Václav in his Paralelní světy offers various possible interpretations in several semantic plans.

The documentary eye

With this approach, seemingly simple questions like who is the hero of the film might cause a long discussion among the film critics. In the beginning it is Tereza on whom the camera is mostly focused. But the objective of the camera representing the authorial subject of the director still keeps a documentary distance from the character. Václav's experience with documentary film is always present in both his full-length feature films through the disinterested camera registering ambient events. That is why we as the spectators do not identify ourselves with the characters.

Petr Vaclav's Paralelni svety (Parallel Worlds, 2001)
A charming lover with his Slovak mistress
This kind of objectivity, which is quite unusual in feature films, is probably why the film incurred the hatred of Czech female critics, who particularly attacked the character of Tereza. Soon after the premiere of the film in the Czech Republic (7 March 2001) it was clear that Tereza induced quite widespread negative responses in the Czech press. Petra Hanáková in her article for Literární noviny presents quite a long list of various but always negative and sometime even nasty reactions from female critics that were written in Czech newspapers about the character of Tereza.

Such intense reactions on a mass scale against a film character are rare. Lots of the women reviewers were furious about Tereza's character and sympathetically forgave the "charming Roden" (many critics wrote not about the character of Kryštof but the actor himself). While Lenka Vlasáková, was by the reviewers usually separated from the role she played the character Kryštof was often mistaken with his protagonist. The personal charisma of the actor made especially the female critics "side with" the male character. As an example of these tendencies in the Czech press, a sentence from a review of Mirka Spáčilová, one of the most popular Czech film critics, is representative. Towards the end of her article in Mladá fronta Dnes she writes:

In a way completely the opposite to that which the makers intended, the viewer has to feel sorry for the alledgedly down-to-earth, but in fact intellectually mature, Roden and wish that he would quickly get rid off that weepy ball of wounded self-pity who is presented as a defenceless saint.[2]

Even though Paralelní světy offers various points of view, the film always testifies about a human being and his inside spiritual world. This intention is also expressed in the way of filming. Camera constantly tries to "get into" the inside world, showing details of faces and offering to the audience a voyeuristic experience. The work of Petr Václav that connects documentary inspirations and creative artistry presents a new interesting way of filming within Czech cinematography. The basic and eternal existential themes inconspicuously lie behind the pictures of seemingly daily reality. Authentic documentary shooting that is completed with symbolic pictures was visible already in Marián. But the social aspect present in Petr Václav's first feature film recedes in Paralelní světy towards more spiritual concerns.

Ivana Košuličová

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Also of interest
About the author

Ivana Košuličová is a postgraduate student of film studies at Masaryk University in Brno.

Also by the author

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Footnotes

1. L'Avventura (The Adventure, 1960), La Notte (The Night, 1960), L'Eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962), Il Deserto rosso (The Red Desert, 1964).

2. "Přesně naopak, než tvůrci zamýšleli, musí divák litovat, údajně přízemního, ve skutečnosti rozumně zralého Rodena a přát mu, ať se toho plačtivého klubka ublížené sebelítosti vydávaného za bezbrannou světici rychle zbaví." The original article, in Czech, is available on the internet on the MfD website.

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