The center of the city of Karlovy Vary is nestled in a valley surrounded by tall trees and fog banks. On the drive in from Prague you’re given little warning when it turns from a wealth of wide-open farmland to the suddenly visible spires of castles and aged villas. The urge to romanticize the absurdly beautiful place is not easily warded off. After a full day of travel I was suddenly wide awake taking in the hundred-year-old apartment blocks and the Grand Hotel Pupp, my home base for the week, living up to its reputation as the supposed inspiration for Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. It couldn’t look anymore like a film set, a place where the aristocracy go to lose their minds in a forgotten Luchino Visconti film, and the flickering lights in the hallways, the eerie calm of empty staircases, and the sense of a party either always ending or starting keep the illusion alive. I’ve never seen anything like Karlovy Vary. It seems at times like the most enchanted city on earth.
There are galas upon galas and each is more lavish and exciting than the last, which do rather compete with the glut of incredible movies screening every few minutes. I’m new to international festivals, having really only covered New York Film Festival, until recently my backyard, and Blackstar in Philadelphia. Everything else has been online, thanks to the safety protocols enacted to keep critics alive during COVID. I hope they continue, but to really be here is a sort of never-ceasing out-of-body experience.
I’m talking to a very talented singer named Lisa Ramey about the concert performed in a public square of the hits of Jesus Christ Superstar, which she missed by virtue of going to the wrong after party when it dawned on me that very little that happens this week will be easily contextualized later. It’s a whirlwind. You have to choose between a disco theme party and seeing all four hours of Edward Yang’s “A Brighter Summer Day,” and well ... it was showing on 35mm, there was no way I was going to miss that. There’s Michael Caine, being honored with a lifetime achievement award. The seven seconds in which I get to express my love of the movie “Play Dirty” and hear him say, in the most famously charismatic voice of the last 50 years, “Thank you, sir,” will last for the rest of my life. I’m introduced to David Ondříček and I get about three seconds before I tell him “Your father Miroslav shot “If….”, on some days my favorite film of all time.” He nods and says “Mine is 'O Lucky Man!'” He named his production company after that film, also by the great Lindsay Anderson, and he’s here repping their latest production, “Zátopek,” which he directed. It’s the opening night film of the festival and though I’m jet lagged I can nevertheless tell it’s impressive.
I’ve written before that biopics are a blight on film culture, beholden to the hoariest cliches and most wretched structures, usually little more than pleas from stars for awards with their biggest and least interesting performance. “Zátopek” thankfully is somehow devoid of all of them, though it’s difficult to deny there’s a decent sized portion of uplift, though it does seems to want to dispense with it. You can only be so unconventional when talking about a national hero. And there’s no denying that that’s what Emil Zátopek was. A wiry balding gremlin of a man, he broke Olympic records, stood up for his teammates at the height of the repressive state apparatus’s speech, and became a symbol of cooperation in the world of sports. The film tells his story in selective flashbacks as in “present” he mentors Australian runner Ron Clarke. It’s a testament to the strength of the laidback style that it never becomes a problem that Clarke’s story doesn’t really have anything to do with Zátopek’s, except that we see the loneliness by which the Czech Locomotive is threatened thanks to his prickly personality and his dislike of being told how to conduct himself by state officials. He walked a tightrope of being too free for his own good and if he pushed it, he’d lose everything even though he get kept putting the formerly undistinguished Czech olympic team in the spotlight.
Václav Neuzil plays Zátopek and it’s the kind of obviously impressive performance awards bodies love, but that makes it sound more obvious than it is. Neuzil is a handsome, soft-spoken man in real life when I meet him the following day, and it was only then that I realized truly what an incredible performance this was. In the movie he’s a relentlessly enthusiastic bastard, a man whose fearlessness would be inspiring if he ever seemed to take an interest in anyone’s happiness but his own, longterm. He has moments of real generosity, not least when helping James Frecheville’s Ron Clarke get out of his shell, but you get the feeling that it’s something of a chore for him to run a mile in someone else’s shoes. Martha Issová (excellent) plays his long suffering wife Dana and she provides a very interesting counterpoint in her own struggle with the spotlight. The film doesn’t soft pedal what a nightmare it must be at times to be married to a self-made hero. It’s only the threat of losing everything that brings him to heel, but even then he can’t really give up his own quest for glory. This is a spiky and asymmetrical performance headlining a movie that really ought to reject such a thing, but Ondříček’s unemphatic tone allows us to think for ourselves whether he was right or wrong. The film only works overtime on its hero’s behalf during moments of pure athletic prowess. The rest of the time it refreshingly doesn’t quite know what to think and doesn’t tell us either. It remains a biopic, there’s no way around that, but it’s one of the least schematic and most thorny of the last decade, when the form took over the box office. The film leaves you with the kinds of questions that biopics don’t often have any room for, and they aren’t all to do with history for once.
I was also grateful to catch up with the riveting Céline Sciamma double bill of Jacques Audiard’s “Les Olympiades, Paris 13e” or “Paris, 13th District” (which she helped write) and “Petite maman,” which she directed. Audiard’s not been this sharp and electric in a decade at least, understandably energized by his incredible cast and by the intensity of the sexual dynamics explored within. Makita Samba plays a disillusioned teacher variously caught between Noémie Merlant and Lucie Zhang (performance of the year material from both of them), polar opposites who demand different things from him as their own lives threaten to spiral. There’s almost too much happening here and it’s all great (the film can’t find time for one of its best ideas: a woman paying someone who looks like her to visit her grandmother in a nursing home because the older woman’s worsening Alzheimers has made it too painful to do it herself).
Even still it can’t quite keep up with the relentlessly touching “Petite maman.” A young girl dealing with her first real bout of grief over the death of her grandmother walks into the woods behind her mother’s childhood home and sees something impossible. I love Céline Sciamma and have ever since "Water Lilies" broke my heart into tiny pieces back in 2008 when it premiered on Netflix. She’s finally become the high-profile creator I knew she would be back when, and to see her make two of the best films of the year is gratifying indeed. There have been many, many pleasant surprises since stepping off the plane, and they don’t seem to show any sign of stopping.