Capricious Summer (1968; Jiri Menzel)
By Daniel Barnes
For some reason, I watched Capricious Summer thinking it was the predecessor to writer-director-actor Jiri Menzel’s more polished Closely Watched Trains. Instead, this bawdy and cluttered but raggedly beautiful comedy was Menzel’s follow-up to Closely Watched Trains, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 1967.
While the rural river bathhouse setting might feel minor in comparison to Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, Capricious Summer establishes a distinct mood of existential dissatisfaction and effervescent gloom.
Capricious Summer concerns a trio of paunchy, middle-aged Czech archetypes. There is an uptight military man, a pretentious priest and a slovenly laborer named Rudolf who spits a lot and yearns to commit adultery. Their mundane routines and familiar arguments get interrupted by the arrival of a gawky magician played by Menzel (an actor before becoming a director).
The men become especially transfixed by the magician’s beautiful blonde assistant Anna (Jana Preissova). They regard Anna with a Madonna/whore duality of awestruck worship and dehumanizing carnality. “She lacks for nothing at all,” whispers Rudolf, as he watches her panhandle from poor people
At night, Rudolf immediately sneaks out to court and bed Anna. Meanwhile, his wife dreams of the magician’s cheap tricks and awkward “feats” of physicality. Rudolf is unable to go through with it, but his wife finds out anyway and runs to the magician.
“From the Lyrical to the Ridiculous”
Much like the players in a bad sex joke, the priest (“The Canon”) and the military man (“The Major”) each take their futile cracks at bedding Anna. All the while, they return again and again to watch the magician. Despite their mediocrity, these performances seem to cast a strange spell over the entire town. Much of the magician’s audience huddles into the shadows, shyly transfixed.
A comedian by nature, Menzel fills the margins of nearly every frame with local color and sight gags, often weaving bits of slapstick into the scene. The narrative here is as flimsy and incidental as it was in Closely Watched Trains. It feels like a stage play enlivened by glorious slashes of cinema.
However, Menzel shows a knack for Wes Anderson-style costuming-as-characterization, creating magical sequences, and changing tones on a dime. Capricious Summer alternates from the lyrical to the ridiculous and back again. It’s as moody and unpredictable as bad weather or the human heart.