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An unknown guest with a very unusual wedding present causes a lot of drama in Honeymoon, the latest collaboration of Czech director Jan Hrebejk and screenwriter Petr Jarchovsky (the Oscar-nominated Divided We Fall). Local star and Hrebejk regular Anna Geislerova plays the bride who’s creeped out by the presence of an insidious man who claims to have gone to school with the groom. An intimate drama about buried secrets and the possibility of forgiveness, Honeymoon is beautifully performed and well-modulated, with the notable the exception of the uninvited guest’s homosexuality, which is an awkward red herring.
Honeymoon forms a loose trilogy about past secrets with Hrebejk and Jarchovský’s Kawasaki’s Rose (a 2010 Berlinale selection) and 2011’s Innocence, the latter also with Geislerová. The Karlovy Vary premiere will be released in Czech Republic on August 22, and name recognition should help it achieve solid art house numbers. Abroad, festivals will want an invitation to this party.
The broken glasses of Dominik (Matej Zikan), the 13-year-old son of groom-to-be Radim (Stanislav Majer), set the plot in motion, as a quick visit to a nearby optician results in the decision of the store owner (Jirí Cerny) to wander into the church where Radim is about to marry the pregnant Tereza (Geislerová). Pretending to be part of the wedding party, the friendly intruder takes pictures, plays with the guests’ kids and follows the couple and their entourage to a beautiful pastoral retreat in Southern Bohemia, where the celebrations continue.
The bespectacled man introduces himself as Jan Benda, a character from Radim’s boarding-school days that Radim claims he’s pretty much forgotten. Tereza knows something isn’t right, but not until some 30 minutes in, when it’s revealed that Benda’s wedding gift is a funerary urn with his own name on it, does it become clear that something’s very wrong. Radim then forcefully escorts Benda off the property and Hrebejk and Jarchovský begin their sophisticated use of time, with the subsequent and prolonged scenes of innocent dancing and drinking only serving to ratchet up the tension before the inevitable return of the character whose presence creates more questions than it answers.
When Benda’s back, he asks Tereza for 10 minutes of her time to explain his behavior and the resulting dialog is shown in real time in a riveting back-and-forth. The filmmakers then turn things up a notch with another intense 10-minute, real-time conversation, this time between the newlyweds. The impassioned discussions are expertly cut together by Czech veteran editor Alois Fisarek, and Geislerová, one of the best actresses of her generation, and the two men, who both come from theater, are clearly in their element, tearing into the revelation-laden dialog with gusto.
While films about weddings and past secrets are a dime a dozen, what sets Hrebejk and Jarchovský’s film apart is that it’s less concerned with the revelations themselves than with the questions they engender. One such question — what if the “worse” in the vows’ “for better and for worse” lies in the past but wasn’t known at the time of marriage? — even obliquely challenges the institution itself by suggesting that perhaps it’s impossible to ever know anyone and thus be absolutely sure about an eternal union. Issues of responsibility, the need for punishment and its more benign twin, the potential for compassion, are also explored and Jarchovský ensures that not only all the protagonists have some past baggage and flaws but also that all the supporting characters are convincingly drawn.
The only sour notes in an otherwise solidly plotted story are its too enigmatic ending (weirdly contrasted with overly explanatory flashbacks) and Benda’s sexual orientation. The latter is used to reveal that one character is a homophobe, but at the same time seems to assume that at least a part of the audience is as well, as a small subplot involving Benda and Dominik seems designed to derive tension from the fact that any homosexual might be a predatory creep who shouldn’t be allowed near children.
Technically, the film is luminous, with Ales Brezina‘s score judiciously placed to further up the tension where required.
Production companies: Fog ‘n’ Desire Film, K Film Plus, Sokol Kollar, Trigon Production, Ceska televize.
Cast: Anna Geislerova, Stanislav Majer, Jirí Cerny, Kristyna Fuitova, David Maj, Jirí Sestak, Jana Radojcicova, Matej Zikan, Vlastimil Dusek, Eva Kukuckova
Director: Jan Hrebejk
Screenwriter: Petr Jarchovsky
Producers: Viktor Taus, Michal Kollar, Tomas Rotnagl, Jan Kadlec
Director of photography: Martin Strba
Production designer: Jan Kadlec
Music: Ales Brezina
Costume designer: Katarína Strbová-Bielikova
Editor: Alois Fisarek
Sales: Fog ‘n’ Desire Film
No rating, 98 minutes
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