Dir. Jan Hrebejk. Czech Rep. 2007. 98mins.
Unquestionably the leading exponent of modern Czech comedy of manners, Jan Hrebejk returns with Teddy Bear, dabbling again with the morals of his contemporaries in a picture that has a good chance of being dubbed by many as The Czech Chill. Comparisons to Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill are inevitable, since Hrebejk's look at the friendship between three couples evolves over a period of time and employs a similar semi-nostalgic, pleasantly ironic approach.
But this is a film scripted by Hrebejk and his co-writer Petr Jarchovsky - and predictably enough satire dominates sentiment, as the female characters assert themselves more than their male counterparts, supporting the film's tagline about 'water being stronger than stone, soft being stronger than hard, women being stronger than men '.
Heavily reliant, once again, on a cast of Czech leading talents, most of them Hrebejk regulars, Teddy Bear looks yet another winner for Prague's leading writer-director tandem. Screened at Karlovy Vary for industry only, Hrebejk is evidently hoping for large international visibility in one of the late summer film events, which is more than likely to happen with positive market response to follow.
The story follows the close relationship between three men who have known each other since school. They are so close that they assume there are no secrets between them - until events prove otherwise.
Ivan (Trojan) is a Czech diplomat stationed in Rome with his wife, Johana (Burger). Jiri (Machacek) has an art gallery, while his wife Vanda (Vilhelmova) runs a less than lucrative coffee house. Successful gynaecologist Roman (Luknar) has been married for many years to Anna (Geislerova).
It seems that they are all happily married, successful and more than content in their respective careers: Ivan and Johana are about to have a baby, Jiri and Vanda have just had their first child and Roman and Anna are enjoying a much-delayed first pregnancy.
Before long, however, all three marriages display cracks; by the end of the film only one out of the three still prevails - and even that is faltering.
Johana confides to her best friend Vanda that her husband is not the father of her children, while Vanda herself kicks Jiri out of their home when he complains about her chronic untidiness. Meanwhile Anna finds out that her husband has been having a long-standing affair with Jutka (Fialova), with whom he even has a daughter.
For additional spice, there is Vanda's sister, the desperately shy but stubborn Ema (Issova) who refuses to marry but wants a baby of her own - and only by a man she knows well. There are also Roman's parents, in a cameo superbly played by veteran Czech director Jiri Menzel and Vera Kresadlova, who supply a glimpse into the less-than-glowing traditional marriage of times gone by.
Teddy Bear offers little new in the way of social or economic comment, coming as it does so soon after Hrebejk's Beauty In Trouble last year, which revealed the director's viewpoint on his contemporaries. Even Italy, which featured in the previous film, appears here to represent the much desired West that some Czechs would love to escape to.
But Teddy Bear is much more of a personal character study, reminiscent of such classics as Claude Sautet's Vincent, Francois, Paul And The Others. Unlike the late French master, Hrebejk opts for a lighter approach, pushing his cast to over-perform their roles, sometimes almost into the realm of caricature. The result may be uneven but it is certainly entertaining, offering a survey of the Czech middle class suffering mid-life crises rather than analysis of it.
Stand-out among his stellar cast are Geislerova's subtly controlled Anna and Trojan's elegantly urban Ivan, displaying the kind of admirable restraint the rest seem less inclined to adopt.
Jarchovsky's skilfully written dialogue is smooth throughout, while technical credits, without exception, are strong. However the soundtrack, which features Satie and Tchaikovsky, at times becomes overpowering.
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Petr Jarchovsky, from a story by Jarchovsky and Hrebejk