'Domestique' ('Domestik'): Film Review | Karlovy Vary 2018

Fatal obsession.

Czech director Adam Sedlak's directorial debut looks at a couple increasingly lost in their own obsessions.

With Domestique (Domestik), Czech rookie director Adam Sedlak has made a most unusual domestic drama. Sure, there is marital strife, but the quarrels are but a small part of an unwinnable race between two individuals in a committed relationship who have incompatible desires: becoming a top athlete and getting pregnant. Conceptually interesting and solidly packaged, this Karlovy Vary competition title finally doesn’t build to a logical outcome, which could hurt its commercial prospects. However, festivals and new-director showcases will take notice. 

Czech everyman Roman (Jiri Konvakinka) is a “domestique,” a professional cyclist who works for a team where he’s one of the road racers aiding their top talent. Creating the slipstream that conserves the energy of the potential winner by literally keeping him out of the wind is a tiring and thankless job, as all the sweat, blood and tears will finally help obtain someone else the desired result. Though the film could do a better job of explaining the role of a domestique for those unfamiliar with professional cycling — a recurring shot of Roman in front of shelves full of awards at home might be especially confusing — there is a clear sense that a kind of pent-up frustration is part of the competitor’s unusual drive to excel even more, perhaps in the vain hope of becoming a winner himself. What’s not helping is that Roman isn’t a young pup anymore and that his creepy doctor is suggesting illegal blood transfusions. 

Roman is married to Sarlota (Tereza Hofova), a schoolteacher who is as methodical and disciplined as her other half, except she’s not applying it to professional sports but to finally getting pregnant. Sedlak, who is also credited with the screenplay, does a great job of drawing parallels between the very determined pursuits of the two, as they both must adhere to specific dietary requirements and very strict planning, with the rules for male and female fertility and top-level cycling not quite compatible. Things become even more complicated when Roman gets a special oxygen tent for them to sleep in at night, killing what little romance there might have been left during their obligatory love-making sessions. 

Sedlak debuts here as a feature director after having garnered acclaim for his successful millennial web series The Term, which unfolded entirely on the desktops of the protagonists. Like that project, Domestique has a strong formal concept, as it takes the domestic chamber drama — except for short visits to the race track and the doctor, almost everything transpires in the sterile, austerely appointed home of the couple — and turns it into a story about unhealthy obsessions stuck in a domestic space. Given the title, it is not exactly surprising that Sedlak favors Roman over Sarlota, though the film does finally turn into a study of a couple torn apart by their respective passions that have turned into neuroses and how the fact they aren’t communicating only leads to them embracing their personal goals even more, creating a downward spiral from which escape seems impossible. 

Since there is next to no backstory about Roman and Sarlota’s relationship and Konvakinka and Hofova play their characters as headstrong obsessives but not much else, Domestique cannot but showcase their relational collapse as a clinically observed process more than an emotionally involving event. This suits the rigid and blinkered obsessions of the characters just fine but is unsustainable over the film’s almost two-hour running time. To make matters worse, the film doesn’t build to any kind of logical payoff but instead simply deflates as it finally but also rather enigmatically turns its eye to Sarlota. 

Nonetheless, there is no denying that Sedlak knows how to create an unpleasantly oppressive and claustrophobic atmosphere. The shots around the dinner table, held for longer than necessary, underline the ritualistic expectations and resulting frustrations and awkwardness of the couple’s meal times, while the frequent use of shallow focus suggests how both characters are so concentrated on one small thing that they can’t see the bigger picture of their lives. Props also to local alternative rock group Vlozte Kocku, whose ominous, occasionally dissonant score further pushes this domestic drama into the realm of relationship thriller and, almost, into body horror. 

Production companies: Shore Points, Sentimentalfilm, Ceska Televize, UPP, Soundsquare, Elekta Film
Cast: Tereza Hofova, Jiri Konvakinka, Miroslav Hanus, Tomas Bambusek
Writer-director: Adam Sedlak
Producer: Jakub Jira 
Director of photography: Dusan Husar
Production designer: Ondrej Lipensky
Editor: Siuon Hajek
Music: Vlozte Kocku
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Stray Dogs

In Czech
116 minutes