Štěstí (Something Like Happiness) (2005), directed by Bohdan Sláma
Sláma´s Štěstí is a film about a struggle against entropy, the natural inclination of the natural world to disintegrate. This is why the sudden death of “the aunt” in the middle of Toník´s most intense efforts to build a new bathroom in a semi-derelict farmhouse an instance of sentimental manipulation, but is an example of an authentic life experience: the death of a loved one usually happens at a most inconvenient moment and we are mostly unprepared for it.
The “father” of the Czech film critics A. J. Liehm condemned Sláma´s Štěstí during its first showing at the Summer Film School at Uherské Hradiště in 2005 as a “terrible film” and a “typical Mills and Boon story”. But Elizabeth Morrison at the Czech film seminar at Glasgow University points out that Štěstí is not sentimental: this can be seen from the way in which the three year old twins are depicted in the movie. A sentimental Western-style movie would idealise them. Sláma, however, shows the children truthfully as messy and chaotic. Perhaps the most “sentimental” are the scenes on the pond where Monika and Toník give a boat ride to the two small boys in a derelict, industrial landscape. But even here, the “beauty of the children” is not in the director´s centre of attention, it is Antonín with his desire to be able to claim Monika and the children as his own.
Sláma´s film is a kind of moral tale, but it is also a statement about today´s society. Štěstí contrasts immoral, arrogant egoists and decent people, whom society sees as “weak”. Sláma rejects the prevailing ethos of the postcommunist era: he rejects the values, which are based on commercial success, aggressiveness and selfishness, and defends humanity, which he defines as sensitive humane relationships. Sláma protests against the aspirations of the consumerist society where only the ruthless, “assertive”, business-orientated individuals can be successful. He looks at the effort, made by yuppies, with irony. Jára, the married lover of Dáša, the mother of the two small boys, is the biggest “enterpreneurial” egoist in the movie. Jára takes his career of bathroom sales assistant seriously. He puts it before everything else.
Most Czechs obviously want to be successful, but they live in post-communist poverty, in high-rises from the communist era. Even though they are poor and insignificant, some of them pretend that they are, at least potentially, “capitalist tycoons”. Sláma´s film suggests it would be better to give up inauthentic, “foreign”, “capitalist” and to return to developing sensitive relations with the people around one.
The adulterous relationship between Jára and Dáša is controversial – maybe the authors of the film have not fully thought it through. If Jára is an insensitive and hedonistic egoist, why is he wasting his time with Dáša, who is an impoverished single mother of two small children and suffers from serious psychological problems? Dáša, however, is also a typical “pro-business” charater. She, too, is totally self-centered and by her psychological brutality she traumatises her young sons. Her character serves as a warning: if you are obsessed with yourself, such an obsession, in its extreme form, can lead to disintegration of your personality. Dáša is on the verge of madness, She spends weeks in the psychiatric hospital. Selfishness is a destructive element. It negates humanity.
The battlefield is clearly divided by a frontline in this film. On the one hand, there are humane, sensitive individuals with a “female” mentality who “do not need to explain anything in words to one another” – they understand one another without verbal communication. But these “female-like” characters are the losers in the “male”, “assertive” world, which lacks empathy for the quiet and sensitive people. The United States and modern technology serve as symbols of the foreign, dehumanising influence of the “enterprise culture”. The new, self-confident, consumerist and successful technological world destroys traditions as well as subtle human relationships. Dáša and Jára arrive in a four by four to Dáša´s sons´s birthday party, organised by Monika and Toník, who had been taking care of the boys while Dáša was in a psychiatric hospital. Dáša and Jára brutally take away the boys from the birthday party, traumatising them in the process.
The “nicest” character is Toník whose predicament - as I was told by Bohdan Sláma´s wife – reflects the situation of the film director himself before the success of his first film Divoké včely (Wild Bees), 2001. Toník is always available when help is needed. He is decent and reliable. Whatever he does is at least partially successful, he is not a total failure. However, since Toník is quietly effective and is not obviously “assertive”, he is not seen as “successful”. He is an incongruous element in the “new” Czech society. He is, in fact, an “angel”, a superhuman being. He does not fit in the society of egoists and frauds, so in the end, he has to disappear from “normal society”. He doesn´t belong in the Czech Republic of today.
The film deals with the relatiomships and problems of a number of people who live in the same high rise block of flat at the edge of a North Bohemian industrial town. A young girl Monika lives here with her parents. She has a commercially successful, assertive “business-like” young man as her partner. The young man leaves for the United States to build his career.
Toník´s parents also live in the high rise flat. Although Toník is sensitive and helpful, according to Monika´s mother he is “no good” – he has no regular pay and so, in the mother´s view, will not be able to support his partner. Toník lives, with his “aunt”, in a semi-derelict farmhouse where is father was born and the family lived. He has no money because he refuses to work at a conveyer-belt in a local factory – he rejects the value system of contemporary capitalism as dehumanising.
The narrative is set in motion by the psychological problems of Dáša, who lives on the top floor of the high rise. Dáša has two small sons and a lover - Jára, a married man, who works as a sales assistant in a store selling bathrooms. Dáša is ill and unable to take care of the boys, so Monika and Toník take them over. But Monika´s mother refuses to continue helping with the boys and objects strongly saying that Monika wants to “sacrifice” herself for them instead of joining her boyfriend in the United States. (“What are you playing at? Jesus Christ?”). The mother implies that we should do only what is beneficial to ourselves. Monika and Toník try to move the boys back into Dáša´s vacated flat, but Jára throws them out of there because he wants to use the flat for sex with his other girlfriends.
So, Monika and Toník take the boys and move with them into the derelict house where Toník lives with his “aunt”. Toník tries to modernise the house for his new “family”. He starts by building a luxury bathroom, although his father tells him that there is no point in doing this. In Toník´s father´s view, Toník should sell the house to the nearby factory which plans to knock the house down and extend the business onto its land.
In the middle of Toník´s most intense efforts to modernise the house the “aunt”dies of cancer. Dáša returns from a psychiatric hospital and brutally breaks up a birthday party for her small sons. Monika leaves for America to rejoin her business-oriented boyfriend. Toník loves Monika. All that he has been working for has disintegrated.
At the end of the film, Monika returns from the US and sets out to look for Toník – he has, however, disappeared. In the last scene of the movie, during a local train journey, Monika looks out from the train at boys from a housing estate chasing a football and a dog running along beside the railway track. She is moved by the ordinariness of Czech life. Contemporary Czech life is far from perfect, but it contains the roots of humanity.
Monika is a hybrid character: she has Toník´s sensitivity, but she hesitates, undecided, between a hard-hitting business world, which her boyfriend inhabits, and Toník´s “unearthly humanity”. She takes too long to make up her mind, and so it is possible that she has lost Toník for ever.
The film, interestingly, reintroduces the motif of Czech national identity, which has now reappeared in the Czech community. Toník´s anxious and futile attempts to save the family house, where his roots are but which is of no interest to any of his relatives can be seen as a metaphor for a renewed search of Czech national identity. This identity has been damaged, it has been neglected, it is on the verge of extinction, but it is authentic. It is the only thing the Czechs have. The fact that the factory nearby is interested in buying Toník´s semi-derelict family house, intending to knock it down and build more industrial installations on its land, can be compared to the unstoppable pressure of the global economy which puts the Czech national heritage under stress. And indeed, Toník gives up his attempts to save the family home.
As Elizabeth Morrison says, we can extend the metaphorical meaning of some of the motifs in this film. Everyone in Štěstí is looking for happiness in the wrong place. That can be a metaphor for the confusion that current Czech Republic is experiencing as a whole. When at the end of the film Monika travels by train to “nowhere”, she sees ordinariness and pointlessness around herself. The dog is running along chasing the train, but it can´t outrun it. Monika doesn´t know where she going – nor does the Czech Republic know where it is going, Sláma appears to be warning us.
Relationships are according to Sláma more important than anything else in the world. The sensitive Toník tells his reluctant father to go and visit the dying “aunt” in hospital. Monika´s gentle Dad wonders whether his daughter´s commercially successful boyfriend is a suitable partner for life, indeed, whether the United States are a suitable place to live. Monika´s mother blots out questions like these. She wants Monika to be economically secure – she feels that wealth is the most important thing in life. Her husband is a symbol of failure for her – he is unemployed in the new, “thrusting”, capitalist society. So what matters for her is not being human, but being commercially successful. Toník is “nice”, in her view, but that is all. It is not enough. But in Bohdan Sláma´s view, it is enough.
Just like some British film directors (Ken Loach), Bohdan Sláma concentrates on showing people living in conditions of social deprivation. Sláma finds the essence of humanity in poverty and thereby defines himself as someone who is opposed to the commercial, successful and hence inhuman world. Sláma however does not produce a passive image of poverty and destruction. There is value in being poor and unsuccessful. Success dehumanises, failure humanises, as Graham Greene says. Sláma´s Štěstí is a human and political protest against today´s world. In effect, it is a political diatribe. We are moving in the wrong direction. The director has clear views and he offers them to the viewer in this film. Why not?