'Forman vs. Forman': Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A fine appreciation of a significant director's prodigious life.

The doc delves into the life and work of Czech-born director Milos Forman, from his impoverished childhood hiding from the Nazis to his Hollywood success.

Forman vs. Forman tells about as triumphant a 20th century American success story as you could find, and tells it quite well. Using illuminating and abundant behind-the-scenes footage from all phases of Milos Forman's life, veteran Czech documentary filmmaker Helena Trestikova and her editor/co-director Jakub Hejna pay warm tribute to a man who steered a roller-coaster route to an eventful and fulsome 86 years that bridged two distinct worlds. This lucid account will be embraced wherever there's interest in the creative and political struggle.

Forman was born in modest circumstances in Czechoslovakia in 1932 and spent his formative teenage years coping with the deaths of his parents in concentration camps and then living out of a suitcase while stealthily trying to avoid both the Nazis and the Russians; he ended up in a wartime school for orphans. It's little wonder that the theme that preoccupied him through his entire career was resistance to authority.

Although Forman grew up with propaganda films that he describes as “dripping with idiocy,” after the war he fell in love with the cinema and found particular inspiration in the Italian neo-realist films. He was able to buy an old 16mm silent camera and squeezed his way into film school. Along the way, Forman also discovered that the man who had been his mother's husband was not, in fact, his real father.

Thanks to some unexpectedly rich archival footage of the Czech years, the doc provides a vivid picture of the precocious director's quick rise, from his witty short Audition to Black Peter and then Loves of a Blonde, a great success that was widely shown in the West and brought the helmer to New York for the first time, in 1966. Footage of him there reveals his surprising command of English even then (he is also heard speaking entirely decent French).

Making-of material from the set of The Fireman's Ball (another big international success and, like Blonde, an Oscar nominee for best foreign film) makes evident a very vigorous director, while footage of him at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival glimpses a tinge of disappointment behind his outward support of the political shutdown of the festival just prior to its screening. Upon the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia shortly thereafter, Forman made the hard decision not to return to his native country, but his wife and sons stayed behind; it would be years until they saw each other again.

With the continuing assist of great private footage, the film presents a close-up of Forman's impoverished early years in New York (especially at the Chelsea Hotel), his work on the fine but failed first American feature, Taking Off, and the subsequent dry spell until his luck changed forever with the momentous success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a classic resistance-to-authority story if there ever was one.

The director's other Oscar-winning triumph, Amadeus, the filming of which marked the return of the conquering hero to his native country, receives similarly detailed treatment, while his relative flops — Hair, Ragtime, Valmont, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon, Goya's Ghosts — get cursory looks at best. Nor is his private life covered in remotely comprehensive form.

Still, extended visits with him at his lovely country estate in New York, along with insightful comments about numerous aspects of his life, contribute to an always-interesting consideration of a man who grabbed the bull by the horns in two drastically different worlds and triumphed in both of them.

High marks, then, to Trestikova and Hejna for doubling down to unearth the revelatory archival footage that offers constant insight, and for providing an intelligent account of an important cinematic career.

Production companies: Negativ Film Productions, Procirep, Angoa
Directors: Helena Trestokova, Jakub Hejna
Writer: Helena Trestokova
Producers: Katerina Cerna, Christine Camdessus, Alena Mullerova, Madeleine Avramoussis
Editor: Jakub Hejna
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Classics)

 

82 minutes