Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Czech director Jirí Menzel received international acclaim with his very first feature, the witty and perceptive Closely Watched Trains. The moody B&W film examined the amusing love life of a lowly railroad employee under the German occupation. Capricious Summer is a much lighter tale filmed in color a couple of years later. It's a period picture that offers a meditation on life by observing a group of amorous provincials killing time in the lazy summer months. The director has a major role as a magician-acrobat, but his film isn't as magical as it could be.
The opinionated Antonín Dura (Rudolf Hrusínský) runs a broken-down set of bathhouses at the side of a popular bathing pond. He allows his wife Katerina Durová (Míla Myslíková) to do most of the work while he swaps philosophy and insults with his two friends, ex-soldier Major Hugo (Vlastimil Brodský) and canon Roch (Frantisek Rehák). The skies break out in sudden showers when they try to swim. Antonín and Katerina bicker and pout, and she flirts openly with the canon; it all seems to be part of the relaxed summer atmosphere. But then the traveling performer Arnostek (Jirí Menzel) arrives. The skinny, bespectacled young man swims in his long johns, cadges a free meal and attracts the whole town to his nightly performances. He's quite good walking a tightrope and performing magic tricks, but Antonín and his buddies are more interested in his beautiful assistant and dancer Anna (Jana Drchalová). Antonín succeeds in luring her to his establishment, where his intended seduction is scaled back to a thorough leg massage. Miffed, Katerina visits Arnostek's caravan. Although all she does is help the performer pluck chickens, Katerina stays on and Antonín fears his marriage is over. Worse, the next night Anna accepts the company of canon Roch, leaving Antonín quite alone.
Capricious Summer ambles along amiably enough but its spell never really takes hold. The script doesn't illuminate the inoffensive characters any more than it sets up the specific time period -- sometime after WW1. Antonín is opinionated, the canon meek and the Major on the boastful side, and we're not given much of a reason to sympathize with them except that they're middle-aged and still interested in women. Only later are we shown potentially important details, such as the fact that the two friends live in orderly houses much finer than Antonín's shack. The Bohemian relationships remain vague. Katarina flirts openly with the canon, causing their rowboat to capsize. Antonín is untroubled by this, but not in any revealing way.
The acrobat Arnostek shows up and dazzles the trio by walking across the pond balancing on one of his poles. As the locals have little to do but comment on the unpredictable summer weather, everyone gravitates to Arnostek's show. He does a good balancing act and even better magic tricks. His main gag is producing oversized playing cards out of thin air and hanging them in a row, all while walking a tightrope. However this trick is done, it's very impressive.
The rest of the movie chronicles our three friend's "dates" with Anna, the ravishing magician's assistant. She dances in a red dress and passes the hat before performances. Although Anna seems quite amenable to whatever her three admirers have in mind, none of them manages an affair. Antonín merely gives her a free leg massage in his bath house. The canon gets off on the right foot with a book of Ovid's love poems, only to be beaten up by the locals for no particular reason: Antonín has to sew his torn ear with a fish-hook. The Major's evening is cut short by the return of Arnostek, who has suffered a fall on his tailbone. Katerina gets fed up with the mess in the magician's caravan and returns to Antonín. The show ends with the three chastened would-be lovers back at the pond sharing a drink.
The film's lack of impact may be in Jirí Menzel's direction. Long lenses produce standoffish visuals lacking in variety. The cast plays many scenes in a passive mood, and there is little directorial comment to energize potentially funny situations. It's altogether possible that the comedy is specific to the Czech language, but there are few laughs in this subtitled version. We wonder what exactly it was that attracted the noted director to this specific tale.
The story behind Vladislav Vancura, the author of source novel, is much more dramatic. Born in 1891 in what eventually became Czechoslovakia, Vancura was a respected doctor and friends with many of the finest intellectuals of the time, such as Karel Kapek (Rossum's Universal Robots). He became an author in the early 1920s. Rozmarné léto (alternately translated as Peevish Summer) was one of Vancura's more popular novels. Jirí Menzel directed another Vancura novel in 1989.
WW2 decimated Vladislav Vancura's generation of literary greats, many of whom were leftist humanists with names that appeared high on Nazi murder lists. Being prominent authors and educators, their dissenting opinions were well known. Playwright Otokar Fischer died of a heart attack when told that Austria had been annexed; Karel Kapek's health collapsed and he died shortly after the occupation of Czechoslovakia. When the Nazi reign of terror reached Prague, Vladislav joined a resistance group. He was arrested in a roundup in May of 1942, only a few weeks before the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, and became one of 2,000 Czech hostages executed in revenge. The original author of Capricious Summer could easily have been the model for the doomed Walter Brennan character in Fritz Lang's American propaganda film about the aftermath of the Heydrich assassination, Hangmen Also Die!
Facets Video's DVD of Capricious Summer is a reasonable transfer of a good color element for this forty year-old Czech film. The greens and blues of summer are nicely rendered. The 1:33 aspect ratio is perhaps a bit tight on the sides in a few shots. Occasional translation errors crop up in the burned-in English subtitles. The audio is basically good, with a cute circus theme standing out in Jirí Sust's playful score.
No packaging was included with Facets' review disc so this reviewer does not know if the release comes with explanatory text or a printed insert. The disc itself is another of the company's plain-wrap presentations and has no extras, notes or further information on the film. The fascinating story of Capricious Summer's original author was found on the Wikipedia website.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Capricious Summer rates:
Video: Good -
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 4, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson