One of the Czech Republic’s most prolific directors working today, Jan Hrebejk is known as a master satirist, looking at the Czech Republic’s past and its influence on the country today. He has been praised in the past for being able to eloquently capture in his films what other Czechs are still grappling with today. Most of his films deal with the mark left upon contemporary Czech society by decades of Soviet rule. He has explored these themes with great success in several celebrated black comedies and even in his most widely known work, the serio-comic World War II film Divided Fall.
Honeymoon finds him working once more with longtime collaborator Petr Jarchovský on perhaps his least comedic film yet. The story begins with the wedding of Tereza (Anna Geislerová) and Radim (Stanislav Majer), which seems like a fairytale occasion until a mysterious young man who calls himself Honza (Jirí Cerný) begins to linger around the ceremony and reception. Claiming to be an old friend from Radim’s school days, he quickly overstays his welcome and casts a dark shadow over the otherwise joyous occasion. When he finally reveals to Tereza who he really is and why he has been hanging around, she has to re-evaluate her relationship with Radim and their future together.
In Honeymoon, Hrebejk casts another critical glance at the Czech Republic’s past. This time, it is through the lens of childhood cruelty at the hands of those with means against those perceived to be outsiders; those who are poor and generally considered lesser. The film poses a very interesting question: can we be responsible for our actions as teenagers? Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t live up to this interesting premise. It spends far too long in the first half establishing just how idyllic Radim and Tereza’s wedding is, so as to create a juxtaposition with the film’s second, much darker half. The feeling of impending doom is far from subtle, having been established as early on as the first five minutes of the film when we first meet Honza. His first interaction with Radim so seeps with weight and foreboding that the next half hour, which is supposed to further build suspense, seems rather tedious as the audience waits to find out just what Honza’s deal is.
When we finally find out what brings him to the occasion, it is revealed in such an unimaginative way – simply having Honza tell Tereza in a brutally straightforward speech – that it is hard not to feel cheated out of a more subtle reveal. What follows then, in the second half, is a series of red herrings that are meant to show us that there are two sides to each story, but by the end the whole film’s set up, and especially Honza’s dramatic reveal, seems absolutely unnecessary as the film concludes by re-establishing its status quo.
In the end, the film sadly squanders the opportunity to answer its central questions of guilt, blame and teenage cruelty by pretending to give us both sides of the story. It asks us to feel sympathy for both the victim and for the instigator, and instead of being balanced it ends up taking no stance and redeeming at least one quite irredeemable character. Here’s hoping that Hrebejk’s next film will see him once again return to form and that Honeymoon is just an isolated misstep in an otherwise great filmography.
– Laura Holtebrinck
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5th to 15th, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official site.