Friday, August 22, 2008

Review of The Joke

“Optimism is the opiate of the masses. A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity. Long live Trotsky.”

So writes Ludvik Jahn in a playful postcard to his girlfriend, teasing her for her gushing letters about the optimism and healthiness at her new Marxist school. It’s just about the only comedy in Jaromil Jires’s adaptation of “The Joke” (excepting a mildly humorous suicide attempt), a novel by Milan Kundera, author of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

“The Joke” (1968) begins in 1965, almost 15 years after Ludvik penned the lines that would mark a disastrous turning point in his life. Now a moderately successful research scientist, Ludvik endlessly recalls the incident in his student days that turned him into the bitter, vengeful man he is today. The flashbacks fill us in on his frustrated attempts to bed Lucie, a beautiful communist zealot more interested in Marxist philosophy than sex. After Lucie show the satiric postcard to a communist official, Ludvik is brought to trial as a dissident Trotskyite.

[Images: Ludvik’s change of fortune is foreshadowed by his visits with Lucie before and after writing the letter. Notice that the framing and river background are the same, but plant life has turned to stone and the light tone (including Lucie’s clothes) has turned dark.

He is expelled from the party and from university, forced into a military labor group and eventually serves six years in the mines.

Unable to forgive or forget, Ludvik is now a numb, unpleasant man who enjoys “whoring around.” When he runs into Helena, the wife of the man who presided over his trial, he sees an opportunity to have his revenge by seducing her. What Ludvik doesn’t yet realize is that, once again, the joke will be on him: his nemesis has long since stopped caring about his wife and now enjoys the company of his apolitical free-love students. Learning this, Ludvik discards Helena, who reacts to being spurned with her own revenge.

[Image: (Left) Ludvik, (Middle) his nemesis Pavel and (Right) Pavel’s young mistress.]

“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.

[Image: A heavily symbolic chasm between the Ludvik and Helena emphasizes their lack of intimacy and affection despite their imminent affair.]

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.

[Image: Failing to see the humor of Ludvik’s letter, the party votes for expulsion.]

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.

[Images: Ludvik’s mood and expression remains relatively constant, but Jires is still able to make the emotional tone nuanced through brief digressions past anonymous characters.]

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.

[Image: Despite the divergent coping mechanism, there is rarely more than shades of defeat in the eyes of Ludvik’s acquaintances.]

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.

Walrus Rating: 7.5

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.


Mad Dog said...

No joke, the guy I was sitting next to in class tonight was reading this.

FilmWalrus said...

I hope the pun was intentional! Anyway, that's really cool and probably a good sign that you'll like the guy (I don't usually judge books by their covers but I do judge people by their books).

"The Joke" is not terribly obscure, though less well known than The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I'd guess that Kundera is probably the second most famous Czech author after Kafka, but I don't actually know...

CassieJo said...

I realize you don't know me, and that you wrote this critique about 7 months ago...but I am currently working on a senior thesis that includes this film and I found it so incredibly refreshing that someone other than me has seen it.
Thank you for your review, I now know that I need to go back and watch it again because you mentioned some of the more technical things that I missed the first time(probably because I am not a film major)... Anyways, you have really helped me out, and I felt I needed to tell you. Please don't be freaked out.

FilmWalrus said...


Far from being freaked out, I'm quite flattered. I always love to hear from readers!

I'm glad you enjoyed The Joke and are writing about it. I'm sure you'll find it just as rewarding the second time. I find the 2nd viewing (with any movie) is where I pick up on technical aspects, since I already know the plot and don't have to focus on dialog as closely. When I'm taking the screenshots for a review I really start to think about what makes the individual images good, and what lends them meaning. It has been a good exercise for me.

Do check out Valerie and Her Week of Wonders if you get a chance. And good luck on your senior thesis!