Nellis's second film has won awards from San Sebastián and Thessaloniki and still seems to be gathering pace on the festival circuit. Andrew James Horton looks at this delightful collision of the family crisis and road movie genres.
Whereas the American "road movie" can explore the seemingly limitless expanses of the vast country as a metaphor for the search for freedom and self-discovery, any possible Czech or Slovak counterparts in the genre must of necessity, given the size and geography of the country, be more confined, more intimate and more rooted in the everyday. It seems natural, then, that Alice Nellis in her second film Výlet (literally "The Trip" but marketed in English as Some Secrets, after the title of the song that plays in English over the opening credits) should combine the trope of the road journey with that of the family get-together that disintegrates into crisis but in doing so leads to healing and reconciliation, á la Mike Leigh's similarly entitled Secrets and Lies (1996).
The impetus for Výlet's eponymous journey is the ashes of the family's father, which have been sitting in grandmother's cupboard for nearly six months. Grandmother wants to make one last trip to Slovakia before passes away and insists that her son's dying wish was to buried in Nové Mesto nad Váhom, the Slovak town he was born in. Accomodating grandmother's wishes is the least of the family's problems, though. Zuzana (Theodora Remundová) is on the verge of leaving her husband, Pavel, while he is baffled as to why she doesn't want him any more. For Zuzana's sister Ilona (Sabina Remundová) the situation is reversed, and she feels her husband is not paying her enough attention. The mother, Milada (Iva Janžurová, the real-life mother of the two Remundovás), over-exerts herself trying to ensure that everybody is happy. Grandson Leon provides an anchor of childhood innocence around which to contrast the storminess of adult life.
So, off they all set in two cars on what should be a straight-forward trip across the border. Needless to say, all does not go well; animosities bubble to the surface, past deceptions are revealed and family loyalties are strained well before funeral service (presided over by Slovak director Martin Šulík with a bit part as a priest), and Milada has to go into overdrive with the white lies to try and keep everyone happy.
Výlet again shows Alice Nellis's ability to take mundane relationships between people and through careful observation and characterisation make them interesting. Indeed, the film is remarkably lacking in incident (at least until the Slovak border is reached), yet its flowing structure never leaves the viewer bored with this investigation into the ultra-normal lives of this Czech family. That this is so is credit to the quality of the script, penned by Nellis herself and inspired by William Faulkner's novel As I Lay Dying (1930). The script has already helped the film win the Best Screenplay award at the Thessaloniki film festival, while at the same event the FIPRESCI jury praised the film for its command of all cinematic devices and more such awards are more than possible as the film continues its tour of the international festival circuit (which started in September, when it played in competition at San Sebastián and walked off with the Best New Director prize).
If the film does have a weakpoint it is in Janžurová's performance, though. The actress, who made her name in 1960s classic such as ...a páty jezdec je Strach (...And the Fifth Horseman is Fear, 1964) and Kočár do Vídne (Coach to Vienna, 1966), also starred in Nellis's first film, Ene bene (Eeny Meeny, 2000). But both roles are exactly the same character—this nervous, bumbling mother who is unsure of how to adapt to her advancing years. The resemblance between her peformances in Nellis's first film, Ene bene (Eeny Meeny, 1999), and her latest offering is so marked that it feels a little like either the actor or the director—or both—are freewheeling somewhat.
Still, it's easy to forget in this day and age that many great directors of the past have needed to rework their ideas about film and film language for a number of years before reaching full maturity. If Ene bene and Výlet were to be considered just rough sketches, what lies ahead for us in the future?
Andrew James Horton
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Výlet was reviewed at the Thessaloniki Film Festival