Autumn Spring – Vladimír Michálek and the influence of death. (Film Review)

Like many Czech films, Autumn Spring cannot be defined by its surface matter, and considering Vladimír Michálek’s first feature film was an adaptation of Franz Kafkas novel ‘Amerika’, it is safe to assume the absurdism is emblematic of something other than what it appears to be. Autumn Spring uses some tropes / actors of the Czech New Wave, particularly the very fine Vlastimil Brodský of Closely Watched Trains fame, and Stella Zázvorková from the great film Lemonade Joe, along with a combination of absurdist and dark comic aspects that in the case of Autumn Spring turn out to be very dark, even to the point of being unsettling in several key scenes, however it is not strictly a New Wave homage film, raising its own questions about the impact of cinemas history in Czechoslovakia. What it is, rather is a commentary on both the obsessions and denials of death and that relationships impact on our lives. Death is the spectre that haunts all living things, and its impact on our life results in one of our key defining belief systems, whatever your beliefs about death.

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Fanda is a retiree who is nearing the end of his life. He can count his many ailments on two hands and he and his wife are in the stage of life defined by visits with the grandchildren and the decision to enter a retirement home. However, Fanda doesn’t want to accept his mortality, or rather he doesn’t want to accept the consequences of accepting his mortality. When responsibility seems to be wrapped in maturity, Fanda sinks into immaturity and childishness to stave off serious thought and therefore the prospect of death. Fanda chooses instead to have fun; and fun means antics! Cheeky adrenalin pumping capers such as pretending to be a wealthy maestro intending to purchase a mansion, so he is chauffeured in limousines and fed expensive food by a real estate agent. However Fanda isn’t terribly good at management, what he used to be when he worked, is an actor, so he tends to lose more money than he makes on these hijinks, and regularly resorts to stealing the money from his wifes savings jar; savings for, paradoxically, their funerals and graves. His wife Emilie (Stella Zázvorková), is his opposite: a woman so obsessed with death that she finds it endearing when their son buys them a used burial plot for their birthdays and the grandchildren draw them pictures of their tombstones.  Eventually Fanda, now a little pissed off that his wife is so welcoming their death, plays a final prank on Emilie – he fakes his own death, but it is so traumatic for his wife of over forty years, that she decides she’s had enough and they need to get a divorce.

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The relationship between Emilie and Fanda is the contrary basis for most of the films comical and absurd turns, with both actors playing a perfect straight man for the other when the need arises. Brodský’s face when his wife proudly reveals the grave site (complete with buried older corpses) their son bought them for their birthday is a treat, but Zázvorková’s look when she explains that she admires her husband’s desire to fly around the world in a balloon is just as dead pan and matches his comedic talents perfectly. Part of the treat of Autumn Spring is the talent on display and Michálek wisely gets out of their way, giving them the opportunity to riff off each other in long, very funny dialogues about their complicated relationship that is defined by their different perspectives, and laced with that intrinsic Czech humour.

At the heart of their arguments is a repeated theme of death v’s life, subtext for responsibility v’s irresponsibility, the implication being that a staid and steady life is one tied to death, to death’s inevitability and to all of life’s consequences. Michálek uses each character to imply each can’t exist without the other, and yet both live under death’s spectre in their own way, Emilie through her preparation for it and Fanda in his refusal (it’s not strictly denial) of it. Both see themselves as accepting, but Michálek seems to be asking how is acceptance possible, and aren’t we deluding ourselves that it is? One of the absurd implications in the life of Fanda and Emilie is its history, they have been acting this way for years, and this open-ended irrationality (they would have divorced long ago in reality if this were the case) gives the tale a fable-like quality, but it also removes the films narrative from one strictly about old people. The age of the protagonists is added to bring death closer, and to make a point about Czech cinema through the years. Emilie’s attitude in particular would never have gained any sort of traction if she were in her early fifties, and yet the way she has been cow-towing to the selfish needs of their son (played by Ondrej Vetchý, as a man who not only keeps remarrying, but keeps the wives living in the same home) for so many years, implies she’s had an attitude of “old gives way to the young” for decades.

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Fanda’s irresponsibility is largely tied up in finances and fiscal management. There is mention of Fanda having endured great poverty as a child that he never truly recovered from. We know Vlastimil Brodský from the early days of the Czech New Wave, the era when The Prague Spring gave Czechs a hope that was quickly dashed, crushing film making and life in general, and launching a flood of art critical at the financial management of the various Czech governing bodies (Stalinism for one) and Ondřej Vetchý and Stella Zázvorková were in the highly acclaimed (and highly accepted by Western audiences) Czech film Kolya made in the late 90’s, under a completely different political climate. There is a touch of the film retrospective and commentary in Autumn Spring, especially when three actors from the past gather to dance and drink well aged wine together to celebrate their lives and their performances. The impact of the New Wave still reverberrates accross all Czech film, in good and bad ways, but perhaps there is a place for this influence still?

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Even with all the typical Czech subtext happening, Autumn Spring is an entertaining film at its surface, warm-hearted and extremely funny. It is worth watching for the performances of  Stella Zázvorková and Vlastimil Brodský in his last role before his age and illness related suicide.

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