Thursday, August 3, 2017

Fruit of Paradise / Ovoce stromů rajských jíme (1970)

After realizing film was her true calling, the first lady of Czech cinema Věra Chytilová enrolled in the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) in 1957. At the time, she was the only woman at the school and was faced with resistance. She was pushed back, but she wanted to direct and had ambitions to make different kinds of movies. Chytilová recalls potentially upsetting the directors at the academy when she told them the reason she wanted to study was because she didn’t like the films they made, feeling that they were predictable and arranged. When the Academy wanted to throw her out, it was a major blow for her that resulted in depression and a suicide attempt. She ultimately resisted being driven out and graduated, in the process directing successful medium length films Ceiling (1961) (of which she also wrote) and A Bagful of Fleas (1962). A Bagful of Fleas and her first feature length film as director Something Different (1963) both won film critics awards.
Chytilová married cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera (Morgiana 1972); they worked well together and collaborated on The Restaurant the World (1965), Daisies (1966), and Fruit of Paradise (1970).
Daisies is Chytilová’s most popular and well-known film. It is a staple in the Czech New Wave movement that’s a fun, technically impressive film with an unconventional narrative about two young, disorderly female leads sticking-it-to-the-man, with copious amounts of style and entertainment ensuing. The movie is supposed to be a cautionary tale on the consequences of destructive behavior, but for me, it’s one of those films you fall in love with and get hooked on.

The final set-piece where the girls trespass/crash an extravagant banquet seemingly laid out out-of-nowhere contributed to Daisies being banned for the depiction of wasted food. Daisies was later unbanned with media restrictions being loosened during the Prague Spring in 1968.
Chytilová’s last film before she was sidelined by the Czechoslovakian authorities from making films for eight years was Fruit of Paradise (Afterwards when she started making films again she shot Apple Game (1976) and it was a big box office success).

Like with Ján Kadár’s Adrift / A Desire Called Anada (1971), the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of ‘68 took place during the filming of Fruit of Paradise. However, they were filming in a location outside of the turmoil and were basically uninterrupted (footage included in a documentary of Věra Chytilová by Jasmina Blazevic called Cesta shows Chytilová on the set of Fruit of Paradise pregnant at the time with her son Štěpán Kučera, who was born July 1st of ’68).

The country’s invasion can be felt from the contrast between Daisies and Fruit of Paradise. In an interview Chytilová states “the invasion is in The Fruit of Paradise.” Something was happening to Czechoslovakia that could not be openly talked about, so in order to impart the brutalization of her homeland, the message was framed around the biblical story of Adam and Eve. The apple becomes a vessel for truth so that when it is eaten, Adam and Eve recognize “that we live in a lie, that we are violently raped.

Eva (Jitka Novákova) and her husband Josef (Karel Novak-voiced by Josef Somr) enjoy life in a surreal spa resort setting, a modern take on the paradisiacal Garden of Eden. There is an outwardly charming enemy among them, the proverbial snake, Robert (Jan Schmid-voiced by Jan Klusák), dressed in red. Eva is infatuated by Robert’s antics and childlike appeal, so when she’s faced with evidence that Robert is a murderer of women, she has trouble bringing herself to accept this truth at first. The truth is ugly and hard to come to terms with. It is something that one wishes to forget after knowing it.

The allegorical message of Fruit of Paradise was either lost-on or denied-by its audience. The movie was not just some kind of simple murder mystery. It did poorly because no one could understand what it meant. I didn’t know what it meant when I first saw it either, but it didn’t matter to me because it was still a rather mesmerizing Avant-garde experience with a beautifully surreal story by Ester Krumbachová and memorable and technically impressive cinematography by Jaroslav Kucera. Like the previous Daisies, there is a lot of originality and salubrious visual and emotional content to absorb in every sequence and set piece, and yet it is so unlike Daisies. In short, it’s a colorful, earthy, and captivating work of art with a lot to say in addition to its poignant underlying message.

There’s a remarkable Adam and Eve segment at the beginning that depicts the traditional account in contrast to the film’s new take on the story that will follow. During this segment, the sound and visuals gel into a wondrous experience with an evocative double exposure effect that almost makes this feel like magically found footage of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. This opening portion alone can stand as its own short film masterpiece.

The movie centers on Eva. She’s a likeable and sympathetic lead. I honestly cannot think of a moment, aside from the intro segment, where she’s not in the movie. This is her story. Even during conversations and events that don’t involve her, she’s usually off to the side watching. She’s rather enigmatic, yet there’s still something intriguing and attention grabbing about her; Novákovais is a theatrically physical and vibrant actress, which makes her unique and appealing. I love how integrated Eva feels with nature. She’s frequently carrying food items from the Earth, which almost makes me hungry for plant-based food, which doesn’t happen too often.

Eva loves to wield apples, which is very Eve-like. The Eve image is subverted a little by also giving Eva an affinity with the orange as well, kind of like with Marie in Daisies picking a peach from the Tree of Knowledge instead of the fabled apple. 

Almost in a kind of dance like state, Eva enjoys carrying a knife and frolicking and swaying like an ethereal fairy in the woods. She’s quite childlike at certain moments and rather happy-go-lucky most of the time in the first half or so.

She almost seems a little bored by her husband, dressed in boring gray, and drawn to the alluring bachelor in a more attention grabbing red, Robert, who’s kind of like a playful prankster. He stands out in every scene he’s in and is kind of like a set decoration himself. He’s got this peculiar habit of sometimes leaving behind a long red serpentine cloth, almost like a shedding snake. Early on, Robert is fun and cartoony at times in a slapstick way. Eva seems amused and entertained watching him flirt with the peacock woman (the sound of the peacock mating call manages to be an integral component to the soundtrack).

Despite there being only three key players in the story, it is surprising just how many extra people are in the movie, most of them strange additional spa resort goers. Eventually, the entire cast is assembled on the beach to play and act like children in their own imagined paradise. There’s a playful vibe that comes from the cheerful visual of adults chaotically chasing after and bumping a big orange balloon, but at the same time there’s a creepy underlying feeling that something isn’t right.

During playtime on the beach, Robert unknowingly drops a key from his pocket. Eva tries to alert him of it, but he’s too preoccupied with his injury and walks off, so, like an animal attracted to shiny things, Eva picks it up. She then enters Robert's dwelling with the key and finds his red satchel that she was attracted to earlier on. She opens it to find an inkpad and a stamp and uses it to provocatively mark her outer thigh with a red six, a symbol of weakness, Satan, and sin. It doesn’t wash off.

About halfway through the film, a murder mystery is introduced when the newspaper announces that another blond has been killed. It is revealed in the news that the most recent victim had a red number six printed on her forehead. After hearing this, Eva is reminded of her own number six stamp, making her uneasy about Robert.

One morning, Eva’s husband confesses to sinning against her, which I’m assuming means he committed adultery, as he was getting scented letters from someone and came off as a womanizer on the beach. This and her uncertainty with Robert being a murderer starts to weigh heavy, resulting in a fantastically freaky scene with Eva writhing and contorting to some kind of insane blurred motion effect and chilling music. Shortly after, Josef accuses her of seeing Robert, as it becomes apparent that she is starting to receive a considerable amount of abuse from her husband. I love that instead of screaming, Eva unloads on a set of drums in the attic, and it is badass. She also goes ‘90s grunge on it by throwing drum heads around.

Josef actually did have an affair, whereas Eva did not seem to, so it is pretty unfair for her to be judged for adultery. After having enough of the abuse, she packs her bags and leaves, but Josef and Robert intervene and basically turn her around by force. It’s movie magic when Eva drops her cylindrical suitcase and it rolls down the hill as the camera follows it.

Robert and Josef become friends oddly enough, and Eva’s likely feeling on that are best portrayed in the screengrab below that also reminded me of particular artwork from Through the Looking Glass (1871). She’s stuck with these bozos.

Eva becomes captive to her situation. She puts on a façade of sorts and tries to make Josef and Robert jealous by dressing in pink and flirting with other men. They don’t seem to buy it but end up more amused laughing and mocking her. Anytime she fights back against Josef, he laughs as if she’s behaving foolishly.

Fruit of Paradise climaxes with a theatrical showdown between Eva and Robert. The climax is quite riveting and it sidesteps a little into horror film territory. 

In her denial of truth, she still becomes drawn to Robert despite what she knows about him being a killer. The heavy stone Robert was seen laboriously and kind of comically pushing around he prepared in a lonely spot for Eva after she asks him to kill her. 

For the climax, there’s a certain 1920’s expressionism feel to it, like we are watching a silent movie with music. Certain segments during the climax seem to be filmed in a reduced frame rate to give it the vintage silent movie feel. There’s lost information and things appear blurry, surreal, and also quite inebriating.

Eva outsmarts Robert. She prevails and returns to her husband and, in a visual that really stuck with me, waves her red rose brooch to him in a hyper stylized manner that almost reminded me of the Goblin King brandishing a crystal ball. 

From the traditional creationist story, Eve was blamed for all of mankind’s follies, but perhaps unfairly. She was the one brave enough to eat the apple to gain wisdom and free us from the paradise that, looking back on, was like a prison anyway. In the film, Eva is blamed and treated unfairly. She’s essentially done nothing wrong. When she’s returned, Josef notices that she has undergone a metamorphosis and acquired the forbidden knowledge, or better yet “the truth,” and judging by Josef’s response, the truth is scary. She offers him the truth, and he cowardly turns away from it.

Fruit of Paradise is quite an experimental film, and the experiments frequently hit the mark. You’ll realize how much of an incredible experience it is by the end. At times, the movie might have the effect of causing you to stare, transfixed and wondering what it is supposed to mean. The ways the story and drama are portrayed are unusually fascinating. Red, white, pink, and black are abstractly used to convey meaning and allegorical significance. There is also something operatic about the whole thing since all of the dialogue was originally going to be sung. The phenomenal music by Zdenek Liska really heightens so many key moments. In fact, the cinematography, directing, and editing sometimes has a music video quality to it that almost feels like watching MTV as a kid again and just being drawn in by how surreal and weird it sometimes gets. Even if you end up not being taken in by the ambiguous narrative, there’s still so much beauty to behold, so many emotions to feel, and so much to absorb each time. 

One of Fruit of Paradise’s chief characteristics is its ambiguity, and I’ll admit that a lot of what I’ve said here could very likely be incorrect. However, Fruit of Paradise is also known for being open to interpretation, and if that is true then as long as the writer is sincere, there can be no wrong answer. 

© At the Mansion of Madness

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