Karlovy Vary Festival hosts Forman and Huppert

Isabelle Huppert, photo: Štěpánka Budková

The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival opened at the weekend with a star-studded audience at Friday’s gala event. Among those present were the French director Patrice Chéreau and his compatriot, actress Isabelle Huppert, who received the festival’s first award. Particularly poignant though was the presence of Czech born director Miloš Forman, as it marked the return of a famous son to his native home and native language. Christian Falvey reports on the opening days of the 44th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

Isabelle Huppert, photo: Štěpánka Budková
There was a warm welcome in Karlovy Vary at the weekend for one of France’s best-known actresses, Isabelle Huppert. The festival called her “a woman of many faces”, and indeed festival-goers had the chance to appreciate a number of them at once: in the in-competition film Villa Amalia, in the intimate drama Gabrielle, which is being screened in a special tribute to Patrice Chéreau. And then also as herself, a role in which Ms Huppert was enthusiastically received, as she picked up the Crystal Globe for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema.

“It means a lot, I’m very, very happy. It’s a beautiful name for a prize, above all. And I know that Karlovy Vary has a very, very old and important story. It’s the heart of the cinephilia, and I’m not surprised that so many young people and so many audiences come to see films here in Karlovy Vary, and I think it’s really a great place and I know it has a very beautiful history.”

Miloš Forman, photo: CTK
It was Miloš Forman however who stole the show for the first weekend. Mr Forman has not made a film in Czech in some 40 years. In that time he has become a superlative director in the western world: the multi-academy-award winner behind films considered works of cinematic genius, like Amadeus and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Mr Forman has lived in America since 1969, and has visited Karlovy Vary on a number of occasions. His arrival at the festival this year though is a special homecoming, as he brings with him his latest work, a tribute of sorts to the country and the language of his origin. A Walk Worthwhile is a jazz opera, a filmed theatre piece by the legendary duo Jiří Suchý and Jiří Šlitr, first produced in the 1960’s by the landmark Czechoslovak theatre company, Semafor.

Semafor made a huge name in its day with plays like A Walk Worthwhile, among other things by being so apolitical as to drive an over-politicised communist regime into a fit of paranoia. Even today, the theatre and Mr Forman are begged to betray the hidden political meaning of the piece.

“We didn’t think about – we didn’t want to think about – whether it had any kind of political connotation or not, because that could get you in trouble in those days. It’s a story about a timeless kind of human condition, and what was absolutely political was the talent of Mr. Suchý. Because the way he used, and uses, the Czech language, was an incredible accomplishment in facing down the great desert-like quality of the official language of that time. So it was like listening to heavenly music when living among the atheists.”

A Walk Worthwhile is about a divorce. A joyous divorce, as the lawyer would have it - that is, until the Postman brings a telegram from England with the best and worst of news. A wealthy aunt has died it seems, and the couple’s yet unborn child is to be one million pounds the better for it. The pragmatics of love are soon in taking over the situation, as the man and his wife, as well as their lawyer, look to turn the situation to their advantage. It’s a great plot, a legend of Czech theatre and its makers form almost a holy trinity of classic Czech entertainment. But for a film, it has interesting and drastic pros and cons. Movie critic Ilona Francková of Premiere.cz was one of the first to see the film.

“Well I enjoyed it, but you have to know that it’s not really a movie – it’s a stage play that Miloš Forman filmed. So that could be a problem for someone who’s expecting a Forman movie, because it’s not like anything he’s done. It’s highly stylised, it’s an opera basically, there’s little dialogue, few lines, but beautiful songs, great music and amazing lyrics. Half of the charm, or half of the power, of this so-called movie is the lyrics, the language.”

A Walk Worthwhile will be on general release from July the 9th and around the world on DVD in December of this year.