Jan 5, 2014

Fruit of Paradise

With authoritarian communism rearing its ugly culture-distorting redhead in Czechoslovakia with the Soviet invasion of the country in 1968, foremost female Czech New Wave auteur Vera Chytilová (O necem jinem aka Something Different, Kalamita aka Calamity) found her highly creative and insanely idiosyncratic filmmaking career put on hold just at the time it begin to both nationally and internationally flourish. After completing her most well known and critically revered work Sedmikrásky (1966) aka Daisies, which was banned upon its initial release in 1966 until 1967 largely due to its gratuitous waste of food (!), Chytilová directed one more film, Ovoce stromů rajských jíme (1970) aka Fruit of Paradise aka We Eat the Fruit of the Trees of Paradise, before she was unofficially blacklisted and was forced to work in the undignified world of television commercials using her husband Jaroslav Kucera’s name just so she could make ends meant. Fruit of Paradise was the first Chytilová film I ever saw and in my opinion it is the filmmaker’s masterpiece as a uniquely uncompromising and thematically/aesthetically intricate work that even seems to transcend Daisies. Like much of Chytilová oeuvre, especially Daisies, Fruit of Paradise is oftentimes incorrectly described as a feminist flick when, in fact, as the auteur has mentioned in various interviews, it is an anti-Soviet parable. An innately anarchistic yet equally operatic reworking of the biblical Adam and Eve story set in a hippie-like outdoors health resort of the exceedingly if not somewhat misleadingly ethereal sort, Fruit of Paradise managed to be entered in competition at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival, but not unsurprisingly, the work was poorly received because apparently nobody could understand it. Indeed, as much as I appreciate anti-communist flicks, Fruit of Paradise succeeds most in its daringly decadent and superlatively self-indulgent aestheticism as a keenly kaleidoscopic work that manages to even rival the high-camp Kulturscheisse films of kraut dandy Werner Schroeter. Not unlike American auteur E. Elias Merhige’s rather uneven black-and-white experimental flick Begotten (1990), Fruit of Paradise begins with a positively penetrating 10-minute prologue that is a virtual film in and of itself and could easily work as a stand-alone short, but what really makes Fruit of Paradise is that it is endlessly enthralling as a sort of beauteous bastard lunatic celluloid love child of Kenneth Anger and Gábor Bódy. A work that essentially proves that Chytilová is the only rightful heir to Maya Deren and an anti-communist flick from a leftist that is no less hyper hermetic than the works of Dušan Makavejev, Fruit of Paradise is ultimately a film that reminds the viewer why the devil wears red.  And as they say, better dead than red...

 For the first 10-minutes or so of Fruit of Paradise, one watches unclad Adam and Eve as they quite angelically tread through a magic, psychedelic forest with ever-changing kaleidoscopic rainbow colors illuminating the flora and fauna. Essentially, a solacing yet semi-salacious introduction to Chytilová's radical retelling of the Fall of Man, Fruit of Paradise then cuts at about the 10-minute point to the present and introduces protagonist Eva (Jitka Novákova) and her somewhat impotent husband Josef (Karel Novak). After fiddling with a little Satanic snake that looks more like a grotesque worm, Eva makes the mistake of biting into a forbidden piece of fruit, but hubby Josef does not feel like taking bite, though he has a taste for something he cannot describe. Shortly after her date with the apple, Eva climbs a wall out of ostensible paradise and meets a Svengali-like fellow named Robert (Jan Schmid)—a dandy devil and serial killer—after he nearly urinates on her little pug-like head. Eva seems somewhat afraid of but intrigued by Robert and for good reason, so she goes her separate way when the fellow rebuffs her, but it will be far from the last time she meets the mischievous man. Living in a hedonistic fantasy outdoor health resort/spa that is like a sort of naturalist neo-pagan hippie heaven, Eva and Josef surround themselves around equally naïve grown adults who, not unlike the two girly girl antiheros of Daisies, act like children and have rather voracious appetites when it comes to whimsical pleasure and entertainment. After attempting to plant carrots for her husband, Eva once again bumps into Robert in what seems to be fate, but the little lady blows him off and runs away. Being a Satanic mack daddy, Robert hits on a number of women, including a wheelchair-bound 78-year-old elderly woman, but as a man of refined taste, he rejects other women. One day, Eva and her husband play a game with friends of what seems to be anarchic volleyball with a giant orange balloon and during the game a key falls out of Robert’s pocket. Always looking to get deeply involved with something she should not be doing, Eva steals Robert’s key and enters his home where she finds a stamp, which she nonsensically stamps her thigh with, thereupon leaving the number 6 permanently imprinted on her leg. As Eva soon learns after reading a newspaper with some friends, a local serial killer has been killing blonde women and stamping their bodies with the number 6. Of course, Eva, who is a blonde, comes to the natural conclusion that Robert is the killer. Not long after that, Robert notices Eva has the number 6 imprinted on her thigh and realizes she knows he is the killer, so naturally he decides he must kill her as well, even if she is not a blonde. Meanwhile, Eva realizes her hubby Josef is a dirty liar and leaves him, as if he is a more deplorable individual than an actual bloodlusting serial killer. Totally in tune with her own female logic, Eva stupidly decides to go chasing after Robert again. Of course, Eva later goes back to Josef as she seems to have a hard time making up her mind. Later, Robert decides he wants to kill Eva, but she ends up killing him instead and failingly attempts to climb over a wall back to paradise, which she has ultimately eternally lost. In the end, Eva goes back to Josef and they both agree that they do not want to know the truth. Fruit of Paradise concludes with the following words being sung by an unseen fellow with a deep voice: “And both their eyes were opened, and they saw they were naked. And they heard the voice of God walking in paradise in the cool of the day. And the man and the wife hid themselves the presence of the Lord among the fruit trees of paradise.” 

 Indeed, for all the aimless academic talk about Fruit of Paradise being a feminist flick, the film certainly portrays the female protagonist as a scatterbrained nitwit of the pedomorphic sort who cannot make up her mind about anything and always seems to find herself in deleterious situations, though I would be lying if I did not admit that the work portrays men in no less of an unflattering light. Sort of auteur Vera Chytilová’s cinematic equivalent to Fando y Lis (1968) directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky except all the more aesthetically and thematically intriguing, Fruit of Paradise is a rare work that managed to create a new cinematic language, thus making it all the more of an artistic tragedy that the film was lost for some time and Chytilová’s filmmaking career dissolved right after the film’s release. Of course, like Daisies, Fruit of Paradise features its fair share of Slavic slapstick-like humor, albeit thankfully to a less overwhelming degree. In a somewhat recent interview, Chytilová stated that she created Fruit of Paradise to speak about “the ideological situation of that time” and that the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia was metaphorically told via the biblical story of Adam and Eve. In the same interview, Chytilová described how the Czech people had to “live in a lie” and that they were “violently raped.” Of course, the antagonist of Fruit of Paradise, Robert the Devil, is a perennial liar who attempts to seduce, swindle, and slaughter virtually every lady that passes his warped gaze and he does not support a red outfit for nothing as a seductive symbol of communism who is just as charming as he is cold and callous. Aside from its singular aesthetic majesty and totally tasty idiosyncratic and iconoclastic tableaux, Fruit of Paradise also acts as the perfect antidote to the Marxist fanboyism of films produced in countries like West Germany and France at the same time. While idealistic idiots like Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Marie Straub, and Alexander Kluge where fetishizing Marxism from the luxury of spoiled capitalist nations where one could certainly afford to wallow in such utopian far-left ideals, Chytilová had to come up with a creative and cryptic way to express the fact that her nation was being senselessly culturally and socially sodomized by the Soviets. Indeed, I would not be surprised if the lousy reception Fruit of Paradise had at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival was more the result of the critics being offended by the film’s anti-communist message than their inability to comprehend the film. The closest thing to an anti-communist take on Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) and a work that proves that Swiss auteur Daniel Schmid (La Paloma, Shadow of Angels) was not the only European filmmaker of his degenerate generation to make timeless aesthetically-pleasing parables bashing the left, Fruit of Paradise is certainly a lost masterpiece ripe for rediscovering for more discerning cinephiles. 

-Ty E

No comments: