For anyone feeling a little squeamish, of vegetarian inclination or just full from a hearty meal, the graphic opening scenes of Traps (or Pasti, Pasti, Pasticky to give its original title) that feature pig castration may prove a little difficult to stomach. These images also feel burned into your retina somehow; a poignant, pre-emptive piece of filmmaking that becomes disturbingly relevant later in the film. For Czech new wave director Vera Chytilovà, filmmaking was a mission. She became a dominant force in the industry and was often described as a militant feminist, although she preferred the term individualist. Traps bears many of the hallmarks that justify both these labels, and even now remains both boldly ambitious and deeply flawed.
After being raped, Lenka (Zuzana Stivinová) exacts immediate revenge, drugging her attackers before castrating them (remember those images?). She then withdraws into herself, unsure of her actions and of the true motives of those around her. The two men, Dohnal (Miroslav Donutil), a reforming politician, and Petr (Tomás Hanák), and advertising executive in search of his muse, try in their own ways to ill-advisedly make amends while also struggling to restore some normality to their lives.
Traps varies unpredictably in tone throughout, at times veering from bawdy, almost slapstick humour, to dark, emotion-filled moments that are as uncomfortable to watch as the castration scenes. Chytilovà also makes no attempt to hide her distaste of the political and social “elite” that populate her film, the central characters only learning to understand and face the consequences of their actions once they have already received their lifetime sentence.
This random approach to narrative makes the film difficult to follow at times. The rape, while being key to the plot and disturbing almost through its lack of perceived violence, becomes a secondary priority in comparison to the men’s castration; Chytilovà sporadically presents Dohnal and Peter as the victims who just want to move on with their lives. This imbalance leads in part to some scenes that are both distasteful and unpalatable and while the director’s overall message is clear, it becomes murky and perhaps even misguided at times.
There is one unarguable element to Traps, and that is its reluctance to fall into conventional classification or genre. At heart it is a strangely twisted black comedy containing moments that will make you laugh out loud. Behind the humour, though, there is serious intent by its maker to cast a critical eye over the political landscape of her country in the 1990s. Traps is not for everyone and yet contradictorily contains moments that everyone will relate to or find of interest. As an example of Czech filmmaking of the period, a time of confusion and expression that reflected the country itself, Chytilovà’s dark feature is a perfect example. Traps isn’t a film you will return to time and again, but it is a film that will remain with you for some time.