"And you, you look like a guitar too, but one painted by Picasso."—Milda (Vladimira Pucholta) to Andula (Hanu Brejchovou)
Welcome to Zruc, famous for its shoe factory—and almost entirely populated by single women. All these women are cogs in the machine of state, fulfilling their roles as productive workers without complaint. Or at least, no one listens to their complaints, as they dream of escaping with handsome men. One romantic soul is Andula (played with coiled passion by Hanu Brejchovou), who hopes her latest boyfriend Tonda (Antonin Blazejovsky) was not lying when he swore that the stone in her promise ring was a real diamond. If not, at least she has Milda (Vladimira Pucholta, who looks progressively younger during the course of the film), a traveling piano player who can teach her about true love.
And if not Milda, then what?
The Czech "New Wave" of the 1960s slipped through the cracks of the Soviet blockade of cultural progress just long enough to get barely noticed by the West. In response to the success of neorealism in Europe, a group of Czech filmmakers looked to counter the prevailing ideological imperative of Soviet film, so-called "socialist realism." Ironically, neorealism itself tended to lean toward populist, often leftist, politics, but interested itself in an unvarnished (or so its supporters claimed) look at the working class. Like most leftist movements, neorealism was co-opted by intellectuals, at least in France, where it transformed into French nouvelle vague, popularly known as "New Wave." Filmmakers like Godard and Truffaut took their cameras out into the streets and embraced improvisation, while rechanneling their artistic ambitions into coy references to the Hollywood they secretly loved.
Milos Forman's first international hit, Loves of a Blonde, is a worthy successor to European cinema of the time. While somewhat slight in comparison to its French and Italian models, Forman's film still shows the makings of a director whose true talents would only be realized after his escape to America following the 1968 crackdown on Czechoslovakia by the humorless Soviet army.
Oddly, Loves of a Blonde begins with a sort of military invasion, one which ironically anticipates the Soviet's desire to assimilate the beauty of the Prague Spring. The mayor of the factory town of Zruc invites the army to move in nearby, so that the factory women will have available men. But most of the men are doughy, married reservists. They are not above a little hanky-panky, but they are certainly not young, handsome, or eligible—and they offer no escape from the drudgery of factory life.
But even the cute Milda has a hard time awakening any passion in the beaten-down Andula. When he notices a scar on her wrist, she matter-of-factly remarks on her suicide attempt years ago. There is something bittersweet about this moment, a recognition of ubiquitous failure to their lives. These lovers wander through their love affairs slightly detached, as if afraid to trust.
Milos Forman's use of nouvelle vague techniques, like his opening shot of a brash woman with a guitar belting out a scurrilous rockabilly tune, both perky and savage, over the opening credits (check out the lyrics: "So this great love of mine turned me into a hooligan!"), and underplayed, meandering dialogue, drains the film of romantic pretension. Even the sexual encounter between Andula and Milda has an air of melancholy eroticism to it, brought out by the tension and awkwardness of the two lovers. Andula's desperate need to trust Milda—to trust anyone—is borne out of her fear of trusting herself. We know even if her romantic ideals will be ultimately dashed by the pragmatic realities of life in the Czech working class (as every neorealist heroine must learn), she will, in the end learn to trust herself—if only because there is no one left to rely upon.
Criterion presents Loves of a Blonde in a print that looks perhaps a little too bright and soft; although it might be argued that this look was Forman's intention, in order to make the film less depressing. What certainly is not Forman's intention, however (or at least I hope not), is the omnipresent vertical scratches on the print. By contrast, look at the impeccable restoration done on Criterion's companion-piece, The Firemen's Ball. Even more disappointing, there is not much extra material. A five-minute deleted scene is offered, as well as a sixteen-minute interview with Forman, in which the director discusses his influences (neorealism and French New Wave, as noted above), and his use of improvisation and mixing professional and non-professional actors. He reveals that the only movies he saw as a child were Snow White and a silent version of a popular Czech opera. I wonder what influence such a cinematic romanticism must have had on his attempt in this film to deromanticize the limited avenues of opportunity for women in his society.
Loves of a Blonde is an intriguing film, worth examining for its exploration of the intersection between class and gender in a totalitarian society. Ultimately, the film reveals more about the restless director Milos Forman would become in later years, as if Andula might be a projection of the young Czech artist, learning a lesson about the risks of youthful enthusiasm. For fans of Forman's work, or those interested in tracking European cinema during its artistic peak, Loves of a Blonde, in spite of seemingly indifferent treatment by Criterion, is worth a look. It has moments of sincere humor and pathos, while managing to resist sentimentality. Forman's work would only mature from this point on.
Criterion is released for time served. Any indiscretions on the part of Milos Forman and company are considered the folly of youth and duly forgiven.
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• Interview with Milos Forman
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