Film Review by Jason Pirodsky
An absolutely first-rate production, Jan Hřebejk´s latest film Kráska v nesnázích (English title: ‘Beauty in Trouble´) is unfortunately sabotaged by a meandering, uninvolving script that fails to generate much interest in its characters or provide a rooting interest in any sort of outcome. The payoff is some interesting moral quandaries and an examination of internal motivation and why we do what we do; near-compelling dilemmas are set up purely because the characters in the film don´t know what they want (even if some of them claim to) and the audience doesn´t know what to root for. The only problem: do we care?
The Čmolíková family lost everything during the 2002 floods in Prague; now mother Marcela (Aňa Geislerová, excellent as always) works at Student Agency and father Jarda (Roman Luknár) steals cars for a living. Children Lucina and Kuba, while not listening to dad slice up cars for parts in the garage, cover their ears while the parents make love in the next room. Kuba has bad asthma due to the mold in their run-down apartment; after a fight with Jarda, Marcela flees with the kids to her mother´s one-bedroom apartment.
Marcela´s mother (Emília Vášáryová) wants to help, though stepfather Ríša (Jiří Schmitzer) just wants her out of the house. Some of the best scenes in the film are confrontations between Ríša and the kids: when he chews them out for eating his diabetic cookies, or reveals to Kuba that his father is in prison for stealing cars (Kuba: “my Dad isn´t a criminal, he´s an auto mechanic!” Ríša: “In this country, my boy, they´re one in the same.”) The film climaxes as he dumps garbage they didn´t take out on top of them while they sleep.
Jarda, the father, spends most of the film in prison; while visiting her husband at the courthouse Marcela meets Mr. Beneš (Josef Abrhám), the owner of a stolen car found in Jarda’s possession. Feeling sorry for the family after seeing Jarda´s mother collapse as her son was arrested, Mr. Beneš attempts to help Marcela – buying her dinner, giving her money, offering to let her stay at his home while he is away; Marcela is reluctant to accept his offers (and the audience is reluctant to believe them, as we are simply asked to accept the character as a rich, kind angel), but a relationship eventually develops, and soon Marcela and her children are at Beneš’ Tuscan villa in Italy.
We watch these events unfold with a passive interest: do we want Marcela to end up with Mr. Beneš or go back to her husband? Marcela herself doesn´t know. She doesn´t seem to love either of them, and in fact, may not have the ability to love. She likes the life Beneš can provide for her and the children, but (apparently) the sex with Jarda is better. I wasn´t interested in the least with what happened – for me, the only interest for me in the film was with why things happened, how the mind games the characters play shape their lives. Had Ríša not picked on the kids, for example, Marcela likely wouldn´t have ended up with Beneš. While interesting to follow, this cannot sustain the entire film; it says a lot that I was more compelled by Beneš´ land acquisition subplot.
And yet, the production is near flawless: acting is uniformly excellent, direction is elegant, cinematography is lush even when focusing on grimy, flood-damaged apartment buildings, singer Raduza is magnetic whenever she is on screen, including singing the title song, and the original score by Aleš Březina is top-notch as well. But this almost contradicts the ultra-realist script; it´s as if a dogme 95 screenplay was shot with the top talent and equipment available. The movie is more condensed and focused than some of Hřebejk´s previous work, like the highly acclaimed Divided we Fall and Up and Down, but also significantly less involving.
A mixed-bag overall. The film looks so good but simply can´t overcome flaws at the base level. ‘Beauty in Trouble´ couldn´t be more apt.