Tereza Hofová in And Then There Was Love... (dir. Šimon Holý, 2022)
Klassiki’s partnership with Samizdat Eastern European Film Festival opens with And Then There Was Love…, the sophomore feature from Šimon Holý. One of the most striking new voices in Czech cinema, Holý made his mark with his debut, Mirrors in the Dark (2021), a contemporary update on the Czech New Wave’s formal eccentricities that interrogated the fault lines of modern relationships. The writer-director-composer more than makes good on the promise demonstrated in that film with his latest offering, which follows Kristýna (Pavla Tomicová), a desperate middle-aged woman who travels to a fortune teller with her reticent adult daughter Sára (Sára Venclovská) in tow, in search of answers to their existential loneliness.
Holý is still interested in exploring the pressure points of 21st-century love lives, but now he has added a newly collaborative approach to the material that deepens and enriches the portrait of modern womanhood that emerges. Working from a skeleton outline, the all-female cast improvised the entirety of And Then There Was Love…, resulting in a drama that moves with a refreshingly natural rhythm and in which women’s voices speak with a rare degree of authenticity. We caught up with Holý to discuss his methods, his collaboration with his female co-authors, and the crises in contemporary relationships.
The first thing I wanted to ask you about was the method behind the film. The scenes were shot in an improvisational manner, and the four female leads are credited for the screenplay. As a way into the film, and the very particular feeling it creates, can you tell us how and why you approached working the actors?
With my first feature, Mirrors in the Dark, there was a script, and everything was planned apart from one scene, where I wrote in the script that [the lead character] was in her room and that was it. I wanted to try something, where we set up a camera in the room and the whole crew left the actor there to be alone. We left her there for 40 minutes. It was super exhausting for her, and it was a super interesting experiment, but it was the material that really talked to me. I felt I needed to work with this more.
After Mirrors in the Dark premiered, we thought we would be supported by the Czech Film Fund for my film Thinking David, which didn’t happen. I ended up with a year with nothing to do, so I thought: let’s use this year to create a film instead. I came up with four pages of treatment, but without any dialogue. I talked a lot with the actors about their motives in the scenes, but the way they went about it was mainly on them. That’s why I thought it was so important to credit them as screenwriters, because they really added so much to the movie.
Czechs are very proud of being the most atheist country in the world. We don’t have religion, but we do have a lot of fortune tellers
It produces a really interesting effect: you have these scenes that, in another film, would be transitional or even banal – two people sat in a car, two people talking in bed about their day – that play out at a length, and which offer a different way into the psychology of the characters.
We wanted to create a world view by diving in with these long takes [so] that you can really watch these people live. Usually in narrative film, this wouldn’t work. I wanted to try this thing where we have half long takes, half ‘regular’ takes.
I was going to say – there’s a distinction between the static long takes and the shot-reverse shot during the fortune telling scenes.
We really wanted to play with that. I wanted to find out what the tempo would be like. Because the construction of the script was difficult to work around, but I felt that this was a film where I could test a lot of strategies. We found that there were so many subtexts in the scenes: for instance, in the car [Kristýna and Sára] are talking about being lost, but they are literally lost in life. The way they communicate is exactly the reason why they don’t have the best relationship.
What came first for you, the idea of exploring female relationships, or the narrative device of the fortune teller?
It was the fortune teller for sure. They are huge in the Czech Republic. Czechs are very proud of being the most atheist country in the world. We don’t have religion, but we do have a lot of esoterics and fortune tellers. I felt it was a trend that no one talks about in the media or in films. I had this idea about a fortune teller, a mother, and a daughter while I was still in university. I had this idea that they would be like a cat and mouse, where you don’t really know who is bad and who is good. I told Sára [Venclovská], who plays the daughter, and she told me that her mother visits a lot of these fortune tellers and that she really knows this world quite well herself. And five or six years later we were on a set together. It was hilarious. I knew that we would dive more deeply into female relationships because that’s the core of the business of the fortune tellers: they know how to manipulate emotions and the truth.
Eliska Soukupová and Sara Venclovská in And Then There Was Love... (dir. Šimon Holý, 2022)
At what point did you decide that it was going to be an all-female cast, and that you would explore these inter-female relationships?
From the very beginning, actually. When we shot Mirrors in the Dark, I also had a female lead. When we were on set, we could see that something was different this time. I talked to a lot of female actors about this, and they all told me that it’s because the crew is female, so they feel more free, and also that their characters are female but they’re not stupid, which is rare for Czech film. Usually, we have stupid stereotypes of female roles: they’re dumb, they’re just there to be a lover, or an exhausted mother. We really wanted to flip those stereotypes. For example, with our “sad mother”, we dive really deep into her psychology. It was also a statement towards Czech cinema.
Due to the improvised approach, you’re also the potential for your male voice to impose itself on the set. Presumably the shoot was very collaborative?
That was always my intention. I always say that the movie is not mine, it belongs to the whole crew. We all created it together. We were all there in this spooky house for many days, and everyone added their own experiences to it. It was the director of photography [Jana Hojdová], it was the editor [Sabina Mladenová]. Sabina was actually on the set because she has done tarot for 12 years. She was very scared about this film because she thought that I was going to make jokes, that I wouldn’t take it seriously. She became our advisor with the cards. She really leaned the film towards a discussion about whether we need esoterics or not and why.
Fortune telling is traditionally a very ‘female’ form of knowledge about the world and about relationships. Did you feel like you were leaning into that, or were you subverting it?
I’m not sure how to answer this, because I really think that we tried to see it through the perspectives of the characters, and they all think differently about it. I didn’t want to make a thesis. I wanted to create a discussion, which is why at the beginning and the end there are the focus groups [where Kristýna works as a consultant]: to show that this film is an open discussion between people, mainly women. Women are usually targeted by fortune tellers, and that’s why we needed to shoot this film with four women.
It’s interesting to open and close the film with those extensive scenes in the focus groups. They play out at a very leisurely pace, and what starts as something quite dry quickly becomes a sincere conversation between these women.
These places where people can share their experiences are getting smaller and smaller, even though there is the internet. People are not having physical meetings where they share their life experiences openly and sincerely. It is kind of funny to me that people become so open at focus groups. I work also for Czech radio, and I was watching a focus group about our programmes once. They didn’t know I was there. It was really interesting – at first, people were answering the questions about the programmes, but by minute 20 everyone started to share their experiences and you could see that people were really starving for discussions like this.
these characters are female but they’re not stupid, which is rare for Czech film. Usually, we have stereotypes of female roles: they’re dumb, they’re just there to be a lover, or an exhausted mother
One of the other themes of the film is communication: the characters need to find ways to access their emotions. There are all these spaces in which people are able to open up – tarot, drug taking, focus groups.
Funnily enough, this is what’s happening between the mother and daughter as well. They’re from different generations and their ways of communicating are different. Also in their own lives there are these paradoxes. They are very open when they’re using dating apps – I want him, I don’t want him – but when they meet [these men], they are not able to communicate, it’s stiff and awkward, and it’s not safe. These paradoxes are something we really tried to work with.
My last question is about the idea of health. Kristýna is constantly saying: “I’m unwell”. She understands her lovesickness as a physical, medical condition. How would you describe your approach to health and the different ways these women consider themselves to be healthy or broken?
Wellness was something we discussed a lot. It’s another paradox. [Kristýna] is a former psychiatrist and now she does focus groups. She knows all the ways to work with people with mental health issues. She’s very quick to say what’s wrong with her, but she’s not able to do anything about it. Suddenly she’s not the doctor, she’s the patient. This is something that happens quite a lot with people nowadays. We know what the problem is, but we don’t know how to solve it: there are so many ways to solve it and so many of them are wrong. This fear of messing it up and failing is so strong that you end up doing nothing.
That’s actually a topic in both of my films and the third one we’re now finishing. It’s a trilogy about female characters who are just at the point of doing something, of changing their lives. Usually in narrative films, you watch [the hero] change. I want to subvert that tradition. So, with these three films, I’m not watching the change but the things that happen before the change. What was the last moment? That’s what’s happening with “health” in this film and the feeling of being loved versus loving ourselves. Where is the point in our lives where we decide to really love ourselves and do things that will make our lives better? We have to find a way to stop being afraid of failing. That’s actually why it’s improvised: improvisation is all about failing.
Watch And Then There Was Love… as part of our partnership with Samizdat Eastern European Film Festival from 12 September – 5 October.