By Daniel Barnes
For some reason, I watched Capricious Summer with the impression that it was the cluttered but raggedly beautiful predecessor to writer-director-actor Jiri Menzel’s more polished Closely Watched Trains , an Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film of 1967. In fact, this bawdy comedy was Menzel’s follow-up to Closely Watched Trains, and while the provincial river bathhouse setting might feel minor in comparison to Nazi-occupied Czechslovakia, Capricious Summer establishes its own mood of existential dissatisfaction and effervescent gloom.
The film is about a trio of paunchy, middle-aged Czech archetypes – a priggish military man, a florid and pretentious priest, and a slovenly laborer named Rudolf who spits a lot and yearns to cheat on his wife. Their mundane routines and familiar arguments are interrupted by the arrival of a gawky magician played by Menzel (who was an actor before becoming a director). They are especially transfixed by the magician’s beautiful blonde assistant Anna (Jana Preissova), who they regard with a Madonna v. 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, while 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. Much like the players in a bad sex joke, the priest (“The Canon”) and the military man (“The Major”) each take their own futile cracks at bedding Anna. All the while, they return again and again to watch the magician’s performances, which despite their mediocrity, seem to cast a strange spell over the entire town – much of the magician’s audience is huddled into 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 – but Menzel has 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 moment by moment, as moody and unpredictable as bad weather or the human heart.