Tajnosti (Secrets), directed by Alice Nellis, 2007
Over the past few years, Czech filmmakers seem to be making films about relationships. There is an obvious move away from social and political themes, even in comparison with the films of the 1990s. Tajnosti deals with what seems to be a banal topic of marital infidelity, with the theme of boredom in a relationship between husband and wife who used to be close to each other. Yet the film seems quite exceptional – because of the way in which the director has approached her narrative. There is a subtle and effective coordination of the actors´ performances, camera, editing and music. As a result, the film is really absorbing: there are scenes of absolute magic.
Tajnosti takes place in a modern, cosmopolitan Prague in the second half of the 2000s. First, the film creates the impression that the director deliberately builds up an image of an Americanised, contemporary Western metropolis (viz. the images of busy motorways, modern architecture, hectic city life). In a way, Tajnosti is an almost “unCzech”. It is an international, cosmopolitan film. The director may be arguing that almost twenty years after the fall of communism her country has lost its subtler national characteristics. This certainly seems to be the case when we look at the Czech Republic from the point of view of upper middle class life which the film depicts. It almost feels that this could be a French film.
Julie, a middle-aged wife of a rich businessman, realises that her life has no meaning. The heroine is played by the well-known Czech singer Iva Bittová. She has created a convincing portrait of a shy, polite woman who tends to avoid attention and who keeps her emotions in check. She would probably want to scream, although, as an intelligent person she is aware that that would solve nothing. Julie´s husband seems to be a workaholic, but he is, in fact, being unfaithful to his wife. For many months, there is no close contact between Julie and her husband. It is very similar with Julie´s relationship to her matter-of-fact, sensible seventeen-year-old daughter who still lives with her parents, but she has her own life. The husband and the daughter are used to the fact that the wife is very self-effacing. When one morning she sees on television that the American jazz singer Nina Simone has died, she is suddenly struck by an awareness of mortality. Julie remembers how as a child, she played the piano, and says at breakfast that she wants to buy one. Her husband and her daughter look at her as though she has gone mad.
This is almost the whole story of the film. Tajnosti hardly tells you anything else. The film just sensitively follows the behaviour of the heroine who is trying to deal with an unpleasant feeling that life is passing her by. She feels, although she cannot express this in words, that things are not right. It is only when relationships which used to function in the past break down that you realise that things which used to seem simple are in reality much more complex and maybe they are unmanageable. And one keeps making mistakes: "I wish I didn´t need to feel ashamed," complains Julie tearfully to a young musician friend at the end of the film. Julie was always taken for granted in the past. She fulfilled the stereotypical role of housewife and mother. In the film, we see her awakening as an independent human being.
The heroine is trying to set her life right because it feels out of joint. The desire to purchase a piano is the expression of a – vague – wish to to return clarity, satisfaction and self-esteem.
Right at the beginning of the film Julie tells her lover, an actor named Karel, that she doesn´t want to see him any more. She is unhappy with a relationship on the side. She doesn´t tell him that she is pregnant, although Karel would have welcomed the news: he wants her to leave her husband and live with him.
Nothing else seems to be happening in the film – yet everything takes place there. When trying to purchase her piano, Julie makes the acquaintance of a young talented pianist, who has inherited a shop selling musical instruments from his grandfather and, as he says, has brought it to ruin in three months. (Later on, the young man appears to cast doubt on this statement, so we do not really know what bothers him. His problems seem to be complex. This is what makes the film interesting. Julie and the young musician become very close. This is because they seem to have the same inarticulate quarrel with the world. The scenes with Julie and the young musicians are very moving.
Just when Julie is about to admit to her husband that she has been unfaithful to him, he is the one who admits to her that he has had a sexual relationship with his secretary. He says he feels guilty and doesn´t know what to do. Yet the husband is no typical Czech male chauvinist pig – after his confession, he goes out of his way to make it up to Julie. There are several well-meaning attempts of the protagonists to become emotionally close. This may or may not work in the end – the film remains open-ended. What is certain is that Julie has emancipated herself – she will never again assume the role of a subordinate wife. The husband has purchased a new, fancy high-tech flat; yet Julie moves back to their old flat, where she gives instructions that her new piano should be delivered. Her husband comes into the old flat with bags full of food, wanting to make dinner. Julie gives him the untrasound scan of her unborn child. This is – or isn´t it? an admission of infidelity on her part. It is not clear whether the child is her husband´s or Karel´s. It is not clear whether Julie will have an abortion and whether she will return to her husband.
Alice Nellis concentrates on human relationships. She shows all the good things that a family experiences when the children are small. She confronts the happy past with the unsatisfactory present – and gives a sensitive testimony about the human condition, without even the hint of a happy end.
Prague is shown in this film to be an affluent, pleasant, picturesque and comfortable metropolis because it is viewed from the point of view of the upper middle classes for whom money is no object. It looks as though Prague is now practically owned by these people – money can buy them anything. Hostility of passers-by seems to be the only remaining feature of contemporary Czech society. Almost everyone in the film is aggressive to any person they meet. Later, this hostility may turn into friendship and compassion, but the hostile attitude to everyone around seems to be the automatic attitude. The only person who is not automatically suspicious of his environment is the down-and-out on the tram who, in a friendly gesture warns Julie that a ticket inspector is about to pounce on her. Maybe, the film argues, that the down-and-out is a down-and-out because he is wary of people around him and is not capable of defending his own interests by assuming that everyone is against him.
The city of Prague, as it is depicted in this film, is extremely lively. Things are going on everywhere around Julie. She is just passively witnessing them, driving around in her car. They are in contrast with her own life with seems barren. Julie´s vision of the city she lives in is of course subjective, as is everyone´s vision. This is shown when Julie takes a taxi and the lady taxi driver says that her dog had died and since then she keeps seeing people going out with dogs everywhere –as the film then demonstrates.
Unlike in the films made in the communist era, the feeling that things are no right does not stem from social conditions, but comes from within the individual. Stylised dance becomes a metaphor for alienation – whenever Julie watches life passing by.