wed 22/05/2024

Blu-ray: Happy End (Šťastný konec) | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: Happy End (Šťastný konec)

Blu-ray: Happy End (Šťastný konec)

Technically brilliant black comedy hasn't aged well

In reverse: Vladimír Menšík and Jaroslava Obermaierová

Happy End’s big draw is its central conceit, that of a convicted murderer narrating his life story backwards from the guillotine to the cradle. Made in 1967 by Oldfřich Lipský (1924-1986), renowned as a director of off-beat comedies, you wonder how on earth such a peculiar film was produced during such a turbulent time in Czechoslovak history.

Lipský himself described Happy End as an experiment, “though not in the sense of the new waves…”, he and co-screenwriter Milos Macourek more worried about viewers finding Happy End incomprehensible than in any political interference. What could be a tragic love story is played for laughs, Lipský understanding that it’s impossible not to giggle when you’re watching someone regurgitate a banana or disgorge a glass of red wine.

Happy EndWe watch butcher Bedřich Frydrych (Vladimír Menšík) being executed for the murder of Jaroslava Obermaierová’s Julie, only for him to calmly reattach his head and take us back through the events leading up to his death. In terms of tone, Happy End hasn’t aged well, and seeing Bedřich remove his wife’s detached body parts from a grubby suitcase and reassemble her is difficult to watch, the first of several scenes which now look needlessly cruel. Bedřich is self-absorbed and hard to love, despite the character’s self-depreciation and Menšík’s gift for slapstick. That he’s a butcher is entirely fitting, the cue for a macabre but compelling sequence showing a dismembered cow’s assorted pieces reattaching themselves. Julie’s oleaginous suitor (Josef Abrhám) is a good comic foil but no more likeable. Funerals become acts of celebration, and little moments like hearing Bedřich describe his beautiful daughter getting “smaller and smaller” or seeing him insert a fishbone into his new wife’s throat instead of extracting it are indelible. But the prevailing queasiness makes Happy End easier to appreciate as a technical tour-de-force than a comedy. 

Playing rewound footage of physical acts is one thing, but structuring a full-length film in reverse is another. There are a few scenes where speech is heard backwards, Lipský and Macourek instead having characters’ lines heard in reverse, so you need your wits about you while watching. There are some predictably funny juxtapositions (“Do you like me?”/"Yes, it’s disgusting…”), Jonathan Owen’s excellent essay describing how dialogue-heavy scenes necessitated the actors speaking normally while physically in reverse. That the performances are so convincing suggests that Lipský knew how to get the best from cast and crew. Restored sound and image are immaculate, the glowing sepia tones at odds with Happy End’s essential bleakness.

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