He is expelled from the party and from university, forced into a military labor group and eventually serves six years in the mines.
“The Joke” is something of an anti-revenge thriller. There is no satisfaction, no payoff, in Ludvik’s loveless, lustless seduction. The film ends on a note of pessimism and disgust, as Ludvik vents his rage in a totally unfulfilling way, self-consciously aware of his own inability to effectively confront his past.
It would have been easy enough for this to be little more than an absurdist critique of the party’s humorlessness, similar to Godard’s Maoist-cell satire “La Chinoise” (1967). Kundera and Jires turn it into a character study, highlighting the cycle of despair as Ludvik obsesses over the past and stews in his hatred. Every indication is that he was already cynical even in his student days (hence the postcard), but he blames his misery on what he sees as a universal betrayal by his girlfriend, classmates and humanity as a whole.
Jires shows Ludvik’s history through frequent unbidden flashbacks. The editing jumps between Ludvik now and then with little fanfare, as if he lives every moment with his body in the present and his memory in the past. Every event around him, no matter how tenuous the association, recalls to him some hated detail of his punishment. His thoughts push there way onto the soundtrack and drown out the dialogue with contemptuous asides. It becomes clear how his inattentiveness, misanthropy and self-pity have made him insensitive to all others.
Meanwhile, Jires’s camera has a tendency to people-watch, picking up on and briefly following minor extras. It gives us a much-needed escape from the isolated selfishness of Ludvik’s mind and subtly undermines his belief that humanity can be reduced to a single faceless enemy.
The lens also dwells on the faces of Ludvik’s friends, showing the different methods of survival under a communist regime: there’s a devout Christian who withdraws from society, a composer who remains neutral and resigned, a worker whose compensation for true commitment is death, a party leader who manipulates the system for personal pleasure, a prisoner (convicted for making cubist paintings) who gains official approval for his salacious nudes by throwing in pro-communist symbolism.
It’s a downbeat but very human film; acknowledging that reality rarely works out the way it should. It cracks a little into Ludvik’s shell, discovering an unhappy creature that few would want to meet in real life. Kundera and Jires never attempt to excuse or redeem their anti-hero, leaving Ludvik to condemn himself. The audience is left to wonder whether the man, the party or merely fate is to blame.
Incidentally, Jaromil Jires is also the director of “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders,” which is getting a restored region 0 release by Second Run on Aug. 25 (Monday!). It should be significantly better than the faded Facets release and features better cover art. It includes an introductory special feature by none other than Kinoblog.