Posted by Susan Doll on July 21, 2008
In an earlier post, I admitted a fondness for quirky foreign films, particularly foreign versions of popular genres such a science fiction, westerns, or horror movies. (Maybe one day when I am feeling brave, I will explain my love for live-action talking-animal movies.) I am actually more curious and open to foreign genre films than I am to the serious foreign fare that receives all of the awards and acclaim. While I appreciate the Bela Tarrs, Krzysztof Kieslowskis, and Alexander Sokurovs of world cinema, I am entertained by the Julius Machulskis and Vaclav Vorliceks. And, a good genre film can be as artistic and meaningful as a drama — sometimes more so. Like their American counterparts, foreign genre films are too often overlooked because they are formulaic, entertaining, or just plain fun.
In the wake of the media blitz surrounding the opening for The Dark Knight this past weekend, plus the recent news of a remake of Barbarella in which Robert Rodriguez will attempt to rework Roger Vadim’s 1968 cult classic, I am reminded of one of my favorite quirky foreign flicks — Who Wants to Kill Jessie?
Talk about your genre film: This modest little movie actually crosses over into several genres – something modern Hollywood rarely does well. Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is a comic-book fantasy featuring a highly sexualized heroine in an action-filled adventure; it’s a sci-fi film that spoofs the cliche about scientists and their always-disastrous secret formulas; and, it’s a political allegory peaking out from behind all those outrageous antics and screwball characters.
Produced in 1966, Who Wants to Kill Jessie? (Kdo chce zabit Jessii) tells the story of a scientist couple who don’t exactly have the ideal marriage. The wife, state scientist Dr. Ruzenka Berankova, develops a formula for ridding dreams of their unpleasant images and emotions. In her lab, she tests the formula on cows, who are unhappy because they have nightmares about pesky flies. The doctor and her assistants know their formula is successful when the cows no longer dream of flies but begin to dream about dozing off in custom-made cow hammocks as chamber orchestras play beautiful music for them. (This scene alone is more entertaining than all of Iron Man.)
When Dr. Ruzenka B. discovers that her husband, henpecked Dr. Jindrich Beranek, is fantasizing about a voluptuous comic strip vixen named Jessie, she administers the formula to rid him of his dreams. Unfortunately, Dr. Berankova does not realize that her serum has a serious side effect: What it eliminates from dreams turns up in the real world. Just as those pesky cow flies start buzzing around the lab, so does Jessie and her motley crew of sidekicks come stumbling out of the newspaper comic strip into Jindrich’s real world.
The film, with an array of inventive gags, sci-fi contraptions, and clever conceits, was nicely directed by Vaclav Vorlicek, who is still working in film and television in his native Czech Republic. Born in Prague in 1930, he studied directing at FAMU, the famous Czech film school, from 1951 to 1956. He submitted the short Directiva as his graduation film and then began working at the Barrandov Film Studios as an assistant director. In 1960, he directed his first feature, The Lupinek Case, a children’s film about stolen dolls. From the beginning, Vorlicek exhibited an affinity for fairy tales, fantasies, and children’s adventure tales, which were distinguished by a poetic beauty and warm humanity. A good example is his 1973 interpretation of Cinderella titled Three Wishes for Cinderella, which is my favorite filmic version of the old fairy tale. Set during the winter, it creates a fairy-tale atmosphere through the use of natural-looking snow-covered landscapes. Its balance of naturalism and fantasy, real locales and fairy tale sensibilities is a measure of its craftsmanship.
The title character of Who Wants to Kill Jessie? was played by Olga Schoberova, who also had experience in working with whimsical, imaginative material — though definitely of the adult kind. Four years earlier, Schoberova had costarred in Lemonade Joe, a spoof of and an homage to the American western that is as offbeat and bizarre as Jessie. One of those near-celebrities who lived a colorful life, Schoberova ended up in a few other Euro-westerns, including West Germany’s Gold-diggers of Arkansas and Black Eagles of Santa Fe – both of which were filmed in Czechoslovakia. Destined for genre films, she appeared in the Adela Hasn’t Had Supper Yet, aka Nick Carter in Prague (1977), as well as the banned Slovak film See You in Hell Fellows! (1969, completed 1990). Under the name Olinka Berova, she attracted attention as a Playboy covergirl in 1964, then costarred in Hammer Films’ The Vengeance of She (1968).
Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is surprisingly hip, particularly within the context of the 1960s. It was part of an international trend for comic-book films featuring busty heroines who fight crime, experience extraordinary adventures, or save the galaxy. With their fast-paced escapades, tongue-in-cheek sexcapades, and outrageous gadgets and weaponry, these films were an offshoot of the internationally popular action fantasies featuring dashing spies, wayward scientists, and arch-criminals.
Within this context, Who Wants to Kill Jessie? would make a good triple feature with Barbarella (1968) and Modesty Blaise (1966). The character Barbarella was originally created by Jean-Claude Forest for serialization in France’s V-Magazine in 1962. The concept was turned into a stand-alone comic book by Eric Losfeld in which Barbarella is depicted as a voluptuous young woman who has numerous adventures, often involving sex, while journeying around the galaxy. The character was immortalized by Jane Fonda in Roger Vadim’s notoriously campy film, which was played completely tongue-in-cheek, especially in the frequent sex scenes.
Modesty Blaise was a comic-strip character created by writer Peter O’Donnell and originally drawn by cartoonist Jim Holdaway. The strip follows the adventures of an exceptionally talented young woman who fights crime while hiding her shady past. Modesty Blaise debuted in the London Evening Standard on May 13, 1963, and was then syndicated among a large number of newspapers ranging from the Johannesburg Star to the Detroit Free Press. In the same year that Who Wants to Kill Jessie? was released, Modesty Blaise was loosely adapted into a comedy thriller by director Joseph Losey. Italian beauty Monica Vitti starred in the title role, with Terence Stamp appearing as her sidekick Willie Garvin. (Oddly enough, I just saw Stamp — my favorite British actor — in the spy spoof Get Smart, which I found funny but sadly lackluster in comparison to the cheeky satire of any of these 1960s films.)
Whatever the similarities with the other comic-book fantasies of the era, Who Wants to Kill Jessie? has a peculiar tone that is uniquely Czech. While Modesty Blaise looks glamorous in her trendy 1960s wardrobe, and Barbarella stumbles around the galaxy tripping over her sexuality, Jessie’s glamour and sexy exterior are undercut by the real word balloons that substitute for dialogue, revealing that she is never too far from her comic-strip roots. The conceit is both funny and clever.
Who Wants to Kill Jessie? was produced during the period of the Czech New Wave, though Vaclav Vorlicek is not a name found in the history books alongside Milos Forman, the most famous member of the Czech New Wave. These young directors took advantage of the wave of liberalization surging through Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s, which allowed them to make films of daring and innovation despite the censorship exacted by the communist government. While the political climate in Czechoslovakia had opened up to allow these films to be produced and released, the filmmakers still faced official disapproval and censorship by the communist authorities. In Who Wants to Kill Jessie?, the plot device involving the manipulation of dreams to eliminate negative images and emotions can be interpreted as a political parable about brainwashing through propaganda and the curtailing of freedom of thought. But, because Jessie is a sci-fi comedy with clueless scientists, henpecked husbands, and crazy comic-book characters, the filmmakers may have gotten away with less scrutiny by the communist bureaucrats. Other genre films from Czechoslovakia during this period, such as the sci-fi drama End of August at the Hotel Ozone (1967) and the vampire tale Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) also featured provocative themes that may have escaped the watchful eye of the censors.
The Czech New Wave ended abruptly in 1968 when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and established firm control over the region, resulting in even tighter censorship in the arts. Some New Wave directors left the country, most notably Milos Forman who settled in Hollywood, while those who remained behind struggled to get their films made — not because of financial difficulties but because of official disapproval of their work. Still, directors continued making films with thought-provoking ideas and themes, though they were often buried beneath genre conventions or safely hidden behind the historical trappings of stories set in the past.
Because Vaclav Vorlicek carved out a successful career as a director of fairy tales, fantasies, and children’s films, it is likely that he suffered less scrutiny and indignities than the higher profile Czech New Wave filmmakers. But, that may also be a reason why Vorlicek never received his due.
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