DVD Review: Odcházení (Leaving)

Václav Havel's first (and final) film is a refined surrealist memoir



Written and directed by Václav Havel. Starring Josef Abrhám, Dagmar Veškrnová-Havlová, Jaroslav Dušek, Tatiana Vilhelmová, Eva Holubová, Vlasta Chramostová, Jiří Lábus, Ivana Uhlířová, Jiří Macháček, Stanislav Zindulka, Miroslav Krobot, Jan Budař, Oldřich Kaiser, Barbora Seidlová, Pavel Landovský, Jiří Bartoška, Michal Novotný, Václav Havel, Stanislav Milota, Marián Labuda st.

Playwright, poet, dissident, and former president Václav Havel, the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, died on December 18, 2011. A rare (in this era) beloved politician, Havel left office in 2003 but remained, to some degree, in the public spotlight; filmmaker Pavel Koutecký chronicled over a decade of Havel’s life in and out of office in the excellent 2007 documentary Občan Havel.

In 2008, Havel returned to the theatre with Odcházení (Leaving), a (presumably) autobiographical tragicomedy about a former chancellor readjusting to life out of office. Actor Jan Tříska starred as Vilém Rieger; similarities to Havel were obvious, though the playwright claimed to have started writing the script in the 1980s.

In 2011, the 74-year-old Havel turned debut director for this film version of Odcházení which, while never leaving its stage origins behind, is a surprisingly refined piece of broad, intellectual surrealism. Odcházení opened locally to lukewarm reviews last May – it rates a 55% at ČSFD – but audiences willing to dig deeper than what the surface may imply are likely to greatly appreciate it.

The story, in short, involves ex-chancellor Vilém Rieger (played by Josef Abrhám), who has recently left office. He lives with his ‘long-time companion’ Irena (Dagmar Veškrnová-Havlová, the director’s widow) and other family members at a gorgeous country estate, and the state – represented by Vlastík Klein (Jaroslav Dušek), a thinly-veiled parody of current president Václav Klaus – is threatening to kick them out of it.

Unless, of course, he’s willing to tow the current party line and throw out a quote a two in support of the current administration, an act that would prove unforgivable for Irena.

On top of this, a tabloid reporter (Jiří Macháček) is interviewing Reiger for a story of questionable merit; Rieger’s older daughter (Tatiana Vilhelmová) is trying to get him to sign a will in exchange for potential board; a pretty young admirer (Barbora Seidlová) is causing him to have impure thoughts; a government official (Jiří Lábus) is separating Rieger’s personal items from state property; and his former advisor’s advisor (Oldřich Kaiser) is attempting to manage everything on behalf of the current administration.

The cast of the film is a who’s-who of contemporary Czech cinema; also starring are Eva Holubová as Irena’s live-in friend, Vlasta Chramostová (reprising her stage role) as Rieger’s mother, Stanislav Zindulka as the butler, and Miroslav Krobot and Jan Budař, among others. Havlová’s dog, Alma Kelly Box Bell Cavalieri del Monnferrato, gets second billing; Havel himself shows up briefly at the end to thank audience members for turning off their phones. Acting is one of the film’s greatest strengths, with Abrhám, alternating between overly broad and almost subtle, setting the tone in the lead.

The entirety of Odcházení takes place in a single setting, the outside terrace of the country estate, and the narrative unfolds in a torrent of dialogue; this is a filmed play, yes, but that doesn’t have to be a negative. Cinematography by Jan Malíř (Musíme si pomáhat) is expertly composed, music by Michal Pavlíček provides a haunting theme, and acclaimed choreographer Jiří Kylián even lends his hand to a dream/dance sequence (which recalls some of the Pina Bausch works glimpsed in Wim Wenders’ Pina).

Odcházení presents a lightly comedic surface, but serious undertones lurk just below. The most obvious parallels are with Havel’s political and post-political career – this is, after all, a situation the ex-president found himself in – but ultimately, the director is going for something a little bit deeper; the title, Leaving, is a reference not only to leaving public office, or leaving the estate, but to leaving the public consciousness, and what kind of mark you leave.

The script bears a clear similarity to Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (not coincidentally, Chekhov’s final work); the country estate fills in for the orchard, and the sounds of falling trees even signal the end. Like the Chekhov play, this one walks the line between comedy and tragedy, though I love the absurd, exaggerated details that Havel peppers throughout the film, and the surreal, detached atmosphere of it all.

It’s not the biting critique of the current administration one might expect; Odcházení suggests a man who still has plenty to say, but who also wonders if it’s worth the trouble any more. If Havel’s early work can be viewed as a dissident’s impetus to better his country through politics, his last might be seen as the work of a disillusioned politician giving up on the system.

Odcházení may be a film you may appreciate more than actively enjoy, but if you have any interest in or admiration for Václav Havel, you’ll be glad you saw it.

Image Quality: 7/10

Bonton’s region-free PAL DVD features excellent contrast and color reproduction, though the image can sometimes be lacking in detail; this may be down to the source material, however, which presents a somewhat hazy, washed-out palate, at least during the day scenes.

Sound Quality: 8/10

Sound is offered in Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0. The 5.1 mix reproduces the audio well: dialogue is crisp, clear, and booming – maybe too booming, often drowning out the ambient sound, but this is down to the original mix.

Subtitles are offered in English, Polish, French, and Czech for the hearing impaired.

Bonus Features: 5/10

Three short but revealing behind-the-scenes/making of featurettes are available in Czech without English subtitles:

–    Making of Leaving (13:59, which looks on the actors and Havel on set)
–    Leaving in Flashbacks (25:05, covers similar ground, but focuses more on the creative/technical process)
–    Night ‘Balabie’ by Jiří Kylián (13:47, a look at the dream/dance sequence arranged by famed choreographer Kylián)

Screengrabs (click to view full resolution):

DVD Review: Odcházení (Leaving)

DVD Review: Odcházení (Leaving)

DVD Review: Odcházení (Leaving)

DVD Review: Odcházení (Leaving)

DVD Review: Odcházení (Leaving)

DVD Review: Odcházení (Leaving)

DVD Review: Odcházení (Leaving)

DVD Review: Odcházení (Leaving)

DVD Review: Odcházení (Leaving)

DVD Review: Odcházení (Leaving)


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