It certainly isn’t obvious what the hell is going on here, plotwise, but the accompanying essay makes a case for the following: Eva (Novákova) and her husband Josef (Novak) are relaxing in the garden of a boarding house – perhaps at a sanatorium (events suggest they need it) when Eva meets Robert (Schmid) (she is picking herbs, he is urinating on her), a bit of a Tigger character who likes to wear a red velvet suit. Eva is curious, so when Robert drops a key, she tries it in the lock to his room and finds evidence that suggests he is a Bluebeard-style murderer of women.
This narrative exposition makes Fruit of Paradise sound pretty normal – and in fact, for me the story and the narrative action gets more interesting from the point of Eva’s room invasion onwards. The film enters, at this point, an intriguing dreamlike, fairy tale narrative state that makes the previous horsings around in woodland and sandpits look like dated performance art.
But that’s only a part of what has been going on previously; the from-the-get-go formal visual inventions that suggest an allegorical, abstracted revamping of the Garden of Eden story are the most extraordinary elements of the film.
The film opens with an eight minute, psychedelic, pagan-liturgical sequence in which a naked couple move around the frame against a backdrop of treated, highly coloured close-ups of leaves, moss and other natural patterns. Throughout the film, there are also disorienting sequences in which shots of nature are treated to a ‘phasing jump cut’ procedure which results in a rhythmic blurring of the image. A similar treatment applied to the actions of the characters makes them shudder as if the film is running backwards. All very strange – but undeniably beautiful.
The film contains several visually arresting sequences over and above these most formalist visual concepts: the scene in Robert’s room – all half-lit Old Europe clutter and decaying décor; the repeated sequence in which Robert rolls a boulder off a rocky outcrop into boggy woodland and the bog itself, which the three lead characters all find themselves stranded in at different times; the wall that Eva is seen trying to climb twice, shot with a wide-angle lens; the final chase through dusky murk with Eva wrapped and unwrapped in a long, bright red cloth.
Many of these sequences – and the constant, disturbing use of wide-angle lenses – suggest a dream state that we are familiar with from the films of Jan Svankmajer, among other Czech film makers. But here the effect is more sustained, as well as being powerfully contrasted with more prosaic scenes. Like every great modernist work of art, Fruit of Paradise needs these less striking, more prosaic scenes to make the formal innovations and striking instances shine out.
As always with a ‘challenging’ film, there is the problem of understanding enough of what is going on to keep a handle on proceedings. Here, Zdenek Liska’s jaw-dropping choral and symphonic music is an absolutely essential element, managing to identify and embellish tonal shifts in the imagery, making sense of the imagery for the viewer.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the music here – for once! – gives the images a power that they wouldn’t otherwise have; imagery and soundtrack seem that fused together, the connection seems that necessary.
Daisies is always being compared to Rivette’s Céline et Julie vont en bateau; in Fruit of Paradise too, what the actors do often compares to the self-conscious play-acting found in Rivette’s cinema. But whereas Rivette’s play-acting is safeguarded by being played out within real-world, everyday urban surroundings; Chytilová’s actors often appear at risk from the very anarchic and dreamlike surroundings from which they emanate.
This is a liberating film to watch and to be challenged by; it also contains some right royal visual headfracks – I can’t think of a better movie to play at an art/avant-rock festival, although then you might miss out on the soundtrack.
Extras are Chytilová’s 40 minute 1961 film Ceiling and a good booklet essay on the film.
Review by Colin Dibben
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Fruit of Paradise is out on DVD on 13 April. Buy from Amazon