Vratné lahve is a variation on Michálek´s feature film Babí léto (Indian Summer, 2001). Jiří Hubač´s script for Babí léto was much more profound than the subtle sentimental humour of Svěrák senior, the author of the script of Vratné lahve. Zdeněk Svěrák is also the actor who playing the main role in the film. Vratné lahve even ends with the same motif as Babí léto; here, too, the aging couple sets out on a trip in a balloon. Vratné lahve, however, seems more superficial than Babí léto because – and this applies to almost all the films made by the Svěrák team – the authors obscure the issues they are dealing with by sentimentality and making their dénouements sound conciliatory. The slow-moving film is slightly redeemed by its gentle humour.
Babí léto was not a financial success: allegedly, no one wanted to see a film about "old people". Zdeněk Svěrák´s celebrity status, which he enjoys in the Czech Republic, seems, in the case of Vratné lahve, to have overcome this handicap. Vratné lahve has been one of the most commercially successful Czech films, made over the past 20 years. This may be due to the popularity of the Svěrák phenomenon. Zdeněk Svěrák has been a well-loved figure in Czech entertainment since the 1970s. With colleagues, he invented the long running, extremely popular joke: the figure of Jára da Cimrman, an unrecognised genius, who allegedly lived some time during the existence of the Austrian Empire, and who invented practically everything. Svěrák and colleagues have organised mock "lectures" and other performances about Cimrman, spinning yarns about this non-existent character for years, to great success.
Zdeněk Svěrák became particularly popular in Czechoslovak entertainment in the 1980s, during the strict censorship of the communist era. Although he wasn´t a communist, he managed to steer his way carefully avoiding politics, so that he was still a television celebrity. For me, Svěrák is the epitome of bland TV entertainment of the 1980s, which many in the Czech Republic still love. This may account for the enormous popularity of Vratné lahve.
Just as Babí léto, Vratné lahve is also a film about the irrevocability of getting old and about the attempts to fight old age. The main character in the film, a secondary school teacher of Czech Josef Tkaloun, who is sixty-five, finds himself, just like the old-age pensioner František Hána in Babí léto, in an alien world in the advancing post-communist era. Unlike Hána, who makes fun of the “aggressive, capitalist” world, Tkaloun tries, over and over again to integrate within the new world, irritating his wife in the process. He cannot stand working as a teacher any more. While teaching literature, his classes are interrupted by cheeky remarks from children from nouveau rich families. Vratné lahve, again, hints that rich enterpreneurs are regarded as alien by the “masses” of Czech society, who are accustomed to living in modestly comfortable circumstances, in a collective existence which shares most of its values and attitudes. In this sense, Czech society is still extremely homogeneous. The few nouveau riches are hated all the more because ordinary Czechs are forced to behave towards them in a sycophantic manner. The head of Tkaloun´s school demands that Tkaloun should write an apology to the parents of the child who was disrupting his classes – the parents are all-important because they have given the school money.
So Tkaloun leaves the teaching profession, but he doesn´t give up. First, he tries to work as a courier, but when he has an accident with his push bike on an icy hill and breaks his leg, he finds a job in a supermarket as an employee whose task it is to collect refundable empties from customers.
Tkaloun is one of many Czech fantasist males in contemporary Czech cinema due to the fact that he attempts to fight advancing old age. But, as I have said, the films made by the Svěráks are always conciliatory. The film wants to please the viewer by suggesting that everything will always turn out all right in the end. During the narrative, Tkaloun manages to bring three couples together. He himself has erotic dreams about young women. When his former colleague and potential lover invites him to make love to her in her flat, he goes on the wrong date and runs into her husband. This is due to his advancing forgetfulness. (Note the automatic assumption that all middle-age men look for sexual adventures with younger women.) But eventually, Tkaloun realises that erotic encounters are no longer for him, especially since his former son-in-law refuses to prescribe Viagra for him, on account of his weak heart. He is not bitter: at least he helps other people to form relationships.
When the Svěrák´s made their Oscar-winning film Kolya in 1996, it was still motivated by their relief from the 1989 fall of communism and by their enjoyment of their "life in freedom". However, 11 years later, their attitude to the communist regime changed. Members of the older generation, in particular Josef Tkaloun, realise that not everything in the new "capitalist" regime is positive. The communist regime may have been oppressive (we learn about that in Kolya, but not in Vratné lahve). Nevertheless, it was a regime where people still read literature, teachers of literature did not need to grapple with cheeky spoiled brats from nouveau rich families in class and public libraries were still functioning. (In the postcommunist times in Vratné lahve public libraries have been replaced with commercial "tooth whitening centres". Like in Nuda v Brně, pornography is omnipresent. There is product placement for Frekvence 1 a Czech commercial radio station which is one of the sponsors of the film. A "discussion" about the importance of the size of the male penis for sex is broadcast on Frekvence 1 during the scenes which take place in the Albert supermarket.) Tkaloun seems to be fighting the post-communist selfishness and social disintegration by trying to put couples together - to contribute his little bit so that people might emerge from social isolation.
Vratné lahve is again, one of the many films which show how frustrating a relationship between a husband and wife tends to be after many years of marriage. Mr and Mrs Tkaloun, both teachers, get on each other´s nerves. It seems they no longer find each other physically attractive. Mrs Tkaloun can predict almost everything Mr. Tkaloun is about to say. She seem to be a typical authoritative wife in late middle age. In Czech cinema, men are horrified by such women. She is quite hard on her husband and she comments on his advancing forgetfulness with irony and with fear.
But Vratné lahve is a Svěrák film, and so it ends in a conciliatory manner. The marriage of the Tkaloun couple is refreshed when Mrs. Tkaloun briefly flirts with a local authority official. When Mr. Tkaloun sees this, his jealousy motivates him to start taking an interest in his wife again. Somewhat extravagantly, he organises a balloon flight. But since Czech men are always lovingly disorganised, the flight is a bit of a disaster – when the balloon basket lands in a water, it turns out that Mrs Tkaloun secretly smokes – apparently she wants to die before her husband because she loves him.
The balloon flight could be interpreted as a metaphor of human life or of a relationship: We stumble on, but there is always a happy end, the Svěráks seem to imply. Men may harbour a desire to be sexually promiscuous, but those who are sensible will prefer a permanent, single relationship.
Everything seems to end up happily. This seems quite unrealistic. Tkaloun is eventually sacked from the supermarket and replaced by an automatic machine, so he loses contact with friends and customers – technology dehumanises, the film points out. But in the Svěrák world, there are no tragedies. There are always new opportunities. Tkaloun´s former colleague from the supermarket starts organising balloon flights for his customers on a regular basis and Tkaloun becomes a guard on a historic steam train. Thus, at the end, the film turns into a fairytale. This is where – as the final conciliatory joke – Tkaloun´s erotic dreams are fulfilled. He locks himself up in a compartment with a young girl at a time when "the train will not be stopping for a long time".
Some critical comment from the Czech press:
"Zdeněk Svěrák has a devious manipulative gift: he elevates people´s bad habits into poetry and shows a patriarchal world as pleasing and harmless, a world which no longer exists." Kamil Fila, Cinepur, 5-6, 2007, p. 31.
"The longer I was watching Vratné lahve, the greater was my disappointment. The film is incredibly forced. I don´t know of any other recent Czech film which tries so hard to be ´nice´. Vratné lahve has a weak narrative and its script is based on symmetrically paired up motifs. The films belongs to the genre of ´Nice Czech Film´. You recognise ´Nice Czech Films´ by the fact that they play them on long distance coach journeys. A typical ´NCF´ mustn´t annoy anyone, it must be accessible to all generations, must be enjoyed even by children and its popularity is based on easily remembered bits of dialogue." Jaromír Blažejovský, Cinepur, 5-6, 2007, p. 30.