The Czechoslovakian Capricious Summer is based on a novel by Vladislav Vancura. The plot focuses on three middle-aged vacationers at a summer resort. The tourist’s plans for rest and relaxation are messed up when a circus tightrope walker and his toothsome daughter arrive on the scene. Director Jiri Menzel (the man responsible for the international success Closely Watched Trains) appears as the circus performer. A valentine to lost innocence, Capricious Summer won the Grand Prix at Karlovy Vary, an East European film festival.
CAPRICIOUS SUMMER: SUNNY INTERLUDE
Jiří Menzel was and remains one of the most internationally prominent of all Czech directors, often named alongside Miloš Forman. This is largely attributable to the breakout success of Closely Watched Trains (1966), his first feature, made after his debut, “Mr. Baltazar’s Death,” the hectic opening segment of Pearls of the Deep. Perhaps due to its accessible mix of violence, sex, and comedy, Closely Watched Trains, a wry fable about an awkward young railway station trainee’s sexual coming-of-age during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, was a major art-house success in the United States and won the 1967 Academy Award for best foreign-language film. The twenty-nine-year-old director became such a name in cinephile circles that his follow-up –Capricious Summer (1968), an equally whimsical film about three randy middle-aged men’s obsession with a beautiful young stranger- was selected to open the 1968 New York Film Festival.
Like “Mr. Baltazar’s Death” and Closely Watched Trains (both based on fiction by Bohumil Hrabal), Capricious Summer was adapted from a literary source, in this case a 1927 novel by Vladislav Vancura, an influential Czech writer who in the twenties had been part of the Marxist avant-garde group Devetsil, which advocated for a political revolution in art; Vancura was executed by the Nazis in 1942 for being part of the Communist resistance. (One of his most famous novels is Marketa Lazarová, which was made into a notable New Wave film by František Vlácil in 1967.) Despite this sober lineage, Capricious Summer is a cheerful film; in Czechoslovakia, it was one of the least controversial and highest-grossing works of the New Wave. As it opens, three friends in their fifties -Antonín (Rudolf Hrušínský), the proprietor of a bathhouse; Roch (František Rehák), a canon; and Major Hugo (Vlastimil Brodský)- are frolicking away the day swimming in a placid pond, smoking cigars, and drinking wine. Representing business, religion, and the military, the men are philosophical sparring partners as much as bosom buddies, engaging in debates about spirituality, commerce, and war. If the film’s casual, sun-dappled charm recalls Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country (1936), it’s probably no coincidence: Menzel has called that movie, which he saw at an impressionable age, his “first great film experience.”
A sudden rainstorm rousts the men from their diversions, a harbinger of change presaging the arrival in their village of the acrobat and magician Ernie (played by the amazingly dexterous Menzel himself, who shows off his tightrope-walking and handstanding skills). Ernie piques the erotic interest of Antonín’s wife, Katerina (Míla Myslíková), and the performer’s assistant, Anna (Jana Drchalová), piques that of all three men, who fumblingly attempt to seduce her (Antonín with a foot massage, Roch with poetry, Hugo with food). All these yearnings may as well be mere daydreams, however, as once the summer is over, Ernie and Anna get back in their caravan and leave the frustrated romantics to their own devices again.
The men’s fleeting moments of bliss seem doubly poignant in retrospect, given that Capricious Summer was released during the Prague Spring. After the hopes of democratic reform were dashed by the Soviet invasion, Menzel’s career in Czechoslovakian cinema took a downward turn. His next film, a third Hrabal adaptation, 1969’s Skylarks on a String (which he chose to make instead of accepting an offer from Universal Studios for a two-year stint in Hollywood), was banned, and he found it increasingly hard to get work. In the 1970s, Menzel was able to continue making films in his home country by agreeing to denounce the New Wave in print, claiming that its filmmakers -including himself- had been misguided in their refusal to play by the rules. Menzel to this day defends the choices he made; he said in a 2004 interview, “I have more respect for those who swallowed it and worked than for those who didn’t overcome their pride, didn’t join the Communist Party, and didn’t make the good films they could.” Of all the filmmakers of the Czech New Wave, he remains one of the most visible; he received an Oscar nomination in 1986 for My Sweet Little Village and had an international hit in 2006 with I Served the King of England, yet another Hrabal adaptation.