English Title: The Joke
Original Title: Zert
Director: Jaromil Jires
based on the novel of Milan Kundera
Music: Zdenek Pololáník
Cinematography: Jan Curík
A vehement indictment of Czechoslovania’s Communist Party cropping up in the aftermath of Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact invasion, THE JOKE is the politically engagé Jaromil Jires’ sophomore feature, adapted from Milan Kundera’s novel and banned immediately after its release, it has been hailed as the last keystone of Czech New Wave movement. Nevertheless, viewed as an independent art piece shorn of its erstwhile political context, it still can hold courts in terms of Jires’ nifty visual and editing modality, but at the same time, is severely undermined by several unsavory blemishes, not least its blinkered misogynous treatment.
In 1968, a middle-aged scientist Ludvik Jahn (Somr) returns to Prague after almost two decades and gestates a vengeance to his former college schoolmates, who have expelled him from both the college and party due to a facetious “Long Live Trotsky” postcard he sends to his sweetheart Marie (Obermaierová) to cheer her up. The joke recoils badly and Ludvik is sent to “re-education” in the military where sadistic corporeal punishment is subject to those political dissenters. In the face of the film’s 20-year-apart past-and-present correlation, Jires adopts an impetuous cross-cutting technique to juxtapose those two time-frames together, often predicating upon the incidents in the present time (a celebration of newborn babies, a music rehearsal of his old bandmates etc.), which evoke Ludvik’s memory of tonally diametrical situations, and subjective angle is also craftily applied to give the audience a vantage point of a haphazard-ish narrative.
So, Ludvik’s half-baked plan is to seduce Helena (Dítetová) (“Why don’t you grow a pair?”), the wife of Pavel (Munzar), who is his former friend and treacherously betrays him in the trial of his “joke”. His plan works, to our utter incredulity because Somr’s Ludvik is the antithesis of his dashing counterpart in Kundera’s source novel, a bald, portly, reticent type, inept in his action and disaffected in his cynical gaze, so, the reason why Helena falls for him so hard is a total myth and very much contrived, loneliness maybe, but as a successful TV anchorwoman, she is not shy of suitors, even younger, prettier ones. It is a plain pathetic male wish-fulfillment in establishing Helena as a desperate erotomaniac albeit Dítetová’s willed attempts to extract some compassion out of her poorly devised character arc, and overall, the female characters are either a masochistic cougar, a priggish party devotee, or a candy-floss trophy girlfriend, no wonder Ludvik frankly admits that he prefers whores.
To shame a man by sleeping with his wife, the stratagem itself is petty, malicious and misogynous to a fault, if Jires’ intention is to make Ludvik a miserable reprobate, he has it on a silver platter. A trenchant reproof of an inequitable polity or a pessimistic take on an individual’s ingrown corruption? THE JOKE begins as the former but ends up in close proximity of the latter, that is a letdown with a capital L.