Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde (1965) uses many of the same comic strategies that he subsequently employed in The Fireman’s Ball, though the two films differ greatly in terms of the subject matter to which the comic touch is applied. As I wrote of The Fireman’s Ball, so here “throughout the film, pointless arguments go on at almost excruciating length, without ever reaching a moment of open conflict, let alone resolution.”
In both films, comedy arises mostly from delays, misapprehensions, failures of communication, and a general sense of awkwardness and self-consciousness. In Loves of a Blonde, this is exacerbated by an awareness of, and the unsuccessful attempt to emulate, fashions from the West. Loves of a Blonde dates from the period of Beatlemania and swinging London; the people in the film are evidently at least somewhat aware of the consumerist styles associated with these developments, however much such styles were disparaged and repressed by the Czech regime at the time. Over the opening credits, for instance, we see and hear a young woman, with an acoustic guitar, singing a rock ‘n’ roll ballad which is notable by its contrast to the older-fashioned dance music heard elsewhere in the film. (One of Forman’s earliest films, which I’ve never seen, was a documentary that juxtaposed the rehearsals of a Czech rock band with those of a traditional brass band).
But in Loves of a Blonde the subject is sex and gender and romantic illusions and fantasy and familial relationships – rather than the pompousness of an overbearing bureaucracy that is the main theme of The Fireman’s Ball. So the effect is far less satirical and abrasive than will be the case in the later film. Instead, Loves of a Blonde works in a more intimate and affective register — though its results are largely disillusioning.
The protagonist, Andula (Hanu Brejchova) is a young woman who works in a shoe factory out in the provinces, and lives and sleeps in a barracks or dormitory with lots of other young women workers. There’s almost nothing to do in this town, and the gender ratio of women to men is something like 20:1. (Apparently, according to Dina Iordoanova’s invaluable book Cinema of the Other Europe, this situation was quite common in Czechoslovakia at the time: pp 130-131). The factory work is presented as boring, repetitious, unfulfilling, and alienating, if not as horrific as (more or less accurate) cinematic portrayals of capitalist sweatshops tend to be. The evident failure of “actually existing socialism” to meet its promises is doubled by an equally evident, and all too traditional, gender hierarchy: the only men we see in the factory (or even in the town) are far older than the women, and have managerial positions.
To rectify the boredom and gender imbalance, the factory authorities convince the army to bring in a bunch of troops to have a party at the local pub — basically it is one big mixer — with the girls. The trouble is, the soliders turn out to be, not young draftees, but reservists: i.e. middle aged men who have been called up for a brief tour of duty, and who have wives and children waiting for them back home. Much comedy ensues as these men try to hide their wedding rings, and figure out what lines to use to pick up the girls who evidently don’t find them the least bit appealing. There’s a great sequence where Forman cuts repeatedly back and forth between a table at which three sad-sack reservists sit, trying to work up their nerve; and the table where Andula and two of her girlfriends sit, commenting snarkily but also nervously about the grossness of these men who are all too evidently staring at them.
The comedy here is largely behavioral. It arises out of the awkward feelings of the characters, together with the tension coming from the obvious mismatch between them. Everything is uneventful and anticlimactic. It’s like a joke whose nervous humor comes precisely from the fact that there is no punchline, no release from the vague uneasiness of the situation. (Surely early Forman is one of the inspirations for Jim Jarmusch, whose existential comedy has often been described as “Eastern European” in feel. But Forman shows none of the hipster smugness which sometimes vitiates the work of the otherwise brilliant Jarmusch).
Loves of a Blonde actually does have a three-act structure, despite Forman’s de-emphasizing of plot and deliberate causalness of presentation As is characteristic of the New Wave (either French or Czech) there’s a kind of simultaneous naturalism and formalism. Naturalism, because the tight narrative motivation of traditional film is deliberately rejected. Scenes and incidents are dwelt on for their own sake, even when they have no significance for the larger story. This is in order to let us perceive in greater, more intimate detail the minute-to-minute feelings and experiences of the characters, and the nature of the milieu in which they live. Formalism, because at the same time we are made more aware of the camera and the editor than would be the case in traditional narrative film. The formal nature of the film is pointed up by the deliberate arbitrariness of editing, the frequent elisions when we move from one scene to another, the often deliberately posed and composed nature of many of the shots, which give the impression of being stills (and sometimes even are).
Loves of a Blonde nevertheless, as I said, maintains a three-act structure. The first act is the party I have already described. The second consists in the depiction of a one-night stand. Andula flees the reservists, but she is picked up and seduced by a man her own age — Milda (Vladimir Pucholt), a pianist from Prague, who has come down to the provinces as part of the band providing dance music for the mixer. Gradually, he coaxes her up to his room, out of her clothes, and into his bed. It’s kind of a game: the moves on both sides, his insistence, her reluctance, her ultimate acquiescence, are all familiar in gender-stereotypical ways. As if to emphasize this, the editing here is especially elliptical, the two-shots of Andula and Milda especially picturesque and composed. The beauty-in-fragmentation of this section of the film reminded me a bit of the parallel scenes — reduced almost to a sort of Cubist abstraction — in which the protagonist of Godard’s A Married Woman has sex, first with her husband, then with her lover. Forman’s staging is a bit less alienating than Godard’s — he wants to make us feel Andula’s romantic illusions even as he exposes them as self-deceptions, whereas Godard is after a harsher critique of the zombification and alienation to which consumer society reduces women. Forman’s scene is also funny in ways that Godard’s could not be — there’s a whole bit with a windowshade that keeps on rolling back up when Milda pulls it down, and eventually falls out of the windowframe entirely. This bit of slapstick is, however, framed and edited in the same coolly abstract manner as the rest of the sequence.
In the third act, Andula — either unaware, or unwilling to accept, that Milda’s fling with her was just a passing whim and nothing more — shows up at Milda’s apartment in the big city. Only Milda isn’t there — he’s out performing, and chasing other women — and, it turns out, he lives with his parents anyway. Andula’s presence sets off an interminable round of bickering — first between his mother and father, and then involving Milda himself as well, when he finally does get home. Everyone’s stuck in their roles in the eternal familial triangle: we get a whole panoply of generational conflict, gender conflict, conflict of tradition vs. modernity, etc etc. The somewhat bitter humor of the situation — this is something that clearly can, and does, go on forever, as the parents and adult child are united in dysfunction, bound together by their squabbles as much as by anything — is the sort of thing that is often said to be quintessentially Czech; though I recognized it as something quite closely akin to (Ashkenazi) Jewish humor. I suppose it’s our common East European heritage.
The final sequence of the film returns us to the beginning — at both the start and the end of the film, we see Andula in bed, in the barracks, with another girl, telling her tales of romantic desire and success. She says, in this last sequence, that the visit to the pianist was wonderful, that it all went well, and that she will be going back to see him every weekend. It doesn’t seem that she is lying, so much as that she semi-believes her fabrications herself. The more tenuous and insubstantial the event, the more fleeting the memory, and thereby the more it is available to be woven into romantic fantasy. Forman doesn’t condemn the fantasy; rather, he suggests, given the grimness of her actual life, this sort of illusion is the only thing that Andula has. We in the audience are disabused of whatever romantic illusions we may have; but at the same time we are gently, insidiously seduced into accepting them — for Andula, at least, of whom it’s impossible not to feel somewhat fond — as a comfort and a compensation.
I tend, in general, to have an almost visceral dislike of the idea that art, or romance, ought to comfort us with lies, and shield us from the harshness of the real: in this way art and romance render themselves complicit with the injustices and oppressions of the dominant social order. The delight we receive from fictions ought to impel and incite us to demand something better, rather than reconciling us to what is. Today, under the reign of the neoliberal world market, it is almost an Kantian moral duty for us to continue to hope, and to resist our leaders’ assurances that there is simply No Alternative. — I think, however, that what Forman does in Loves of a Blonde is precisely to demonstrate how, under the demoralizing effects of “actually existing socialism,” the pallid comfort of self-deception through romantic illusion really was the best that one could hope for.