Written by Jason Pirodsky
While Medvídek (English title: Teddy Bear), the latest film from director Jan Hřebejk and writer Petr Jarchovský, is far from perfect, I can forgive most of the flaws due to its immensely talented ensemble cast. Unlike the focused drama of last year´s Kráska v nesnázích (which I was too harsh on at the time), the duo tackle a lighter Woody Allen-esque relationship dramady here. It´s one of their lighter films, and while it never reaches the highs the duo had with Musíme si pomáhat (Divided We Fall) and Pelíšky (Cosy Dens) in 1999-2000, it´s consistently entertaining. While I didn´t have much empathy for the characters in the film, I had tremendous appreciation for the actors playing them.
The film follows a trio of married couples, exploring the lives of their relationships: Jirka (Jiří Macháček) and Vanda (Táňa Vilhelmová) have a young daughter, but their love has started to erode; Roman (Roman Luknár) and Anna (Aňa Geislerová) appear to be happily married, trying to conceive, but infidelity will come between them; and Ivan (Ivan Trojan) and Johana (Nataša Burger), members of the diplomatic community in Rome, appear to feign the kind of relationship expected of them rather than let their true emotions surface. I was less interested in the husband/wife stuff, which is somewhat standard fare, but far more so in the relationships between the couples as friends – the three men and the three women – and how their personal secrets affect their friendships.
Also in the mix is Vanda´s socially awkward sister, Ema (Klára Issová), who wants a child although a relationship is likely out of the question; she asks her brother-in-law, Jirka, to help her conceive. The character serves mostly as comic relief, but Issová acquits herself well. Meanwhile, the love seems to be gone between Jirka and Vanda right from the outset; Vanda´s a slob and Jirka lets her know it. Press notes indicate there´s a ‘secret´ between each couple, but there´s nothing between these two, and the film dotes on their relationship for far too long; Jirka doesn´t want to leave but we know it´s inevitable. Macháček, however, is wonderfully deadpan in the role, drawing unexpected laughs from the situation; Vilhelmová plays off him well but fails to make much of an impression otherwise.
The breakdown of Roman and Anna´s marriage makes for much of the second act. They appear to be happily married, and genuinely care for each other; one day, however, Anna receives a visit from Roman´s lover of many years (Zuzana Fialová) and her (and Roman´s) young daughter. It comes as a shock to Anna, who almost immediately ends the relationship. Geislerová (whom I would nominate as the Czech Republic´s finest actress) and Luknár are both terrific, and their performances add a depth to the characters that makes for the heart of the film; none of the characters in the ensemble film is fully fleshed out, but we feel for Roman and Anna, and Geislerová and Luknár deserve most of the credit.
The relationship between Ivan and Johana is almost non-existent, and left mostly unexplored by the filmmakers; early on we learn that Ivan is not the father of his wife´s unborn child, but we don´t learn until the very end if Ivan knows or how he feels. Rather, this secret, initially shared by Johana with Vanda but eventually making the rounds, serves to define to relationships between the friends. Johana seems to drift away from Vanda and Anna, who may be uncomfortable with her supposed infidelity. Meanwhile, almost as if it draws them closer, Roman and Jirka try to understand what Ivan is going through and how the secret made it´s way to them. Trojan and Burger are both excellent, but given less screentime than the other couples.
Halfway through the film, Jiří Menzel (famed director of Closely Observed Trains) and Věra Křesadlová (Miloš Forman´s former wife) show up as Roman´s parents, whom he goes to live with when Anna kicks him out – and they absolutely steal the show. They share but a single scene of dialogue – a discussion on Roman´s infidelity that turns into a discussion on their own potential past indiscretions – that´s both hilarious and unexpectedly honest at the same time. Křesadlová´s comic timing is perfect; Menzel isn´t known as an actor, but even his reaction shots here are priceless. I was on the fence about the film until this scene, which finally pushed it over.
The film is technically adept, though it doesn´t look nearly as good as Kráska v nesnázích, despite being shot by the same cinematographer, Jan Malíř. Music is unmemorable. The passage of time is also a problem which is quite jarring at times: no ‘x years later’ subtitles, and all the actors look the same – we can only tell the difference because the kids have grown. An odd choice for a film that labels each establishing shot of Rome and Prague as such, despite instantly recognizable architecture in the background rendering it unnecessary. Minor faults, though. That talented cast always keeps things interesting.
About Kráska v nesnázích: I didn´t enjoy it at the time, but it´s stuck with me, ripe for a re-viewing. Despite rating Medvídek higher here, I wouldn´t say it’s a better film.
Medvídek is now screening with English subtitles at Village Cinemas Anděl.