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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Revelations

The Czech Republic's past and one woman's New York present

Kawasaki’s Rose
Menemsha Films

Tiny Furniture
IFC Films

Time and truth, and their effects on each other, are at the heart of Kawasaki’s Rose. This film takes place, for the most part, in the Czech Republic today, but it deals chiefly with people who lived through the Communist tyranny of the 1970s. It probes the minds and memories of people on both sides of the political division, to find out how their experience has lived in them and how it has affected them.

Several other matters—nothing to do with the political past—involve the principals, but these other matters tend to show how subsequent events have not erased the 1970s experience; they simply form its context.

The writer and the director, Petr Jarchovský and Jan Hrebejk, were high school friends, we’re told, as well as film-school collaborators, and have already produced work (unseen by me) of political weight. Patently they are men who have come to film as artists come to any other art: not primarily to manufacture hits (agreeable though that always is), but to deal with matters that concern them. It takes only the first few minutes of the film to make this clear.

Hrebejk has said that, for this film, he and Jarchovský were sparked by a historical study that demonstrated that “confronting people’s statements about events that took place twenty years ago with records from the time leads to considerable ambiguity” and to “the theme of individual memory and its pitfalls.” The term “lying” is not used. Hence this story. Ramified as it is, it centers on Pavel, an elderly and eminent professor of psychiatry, who was involved in the ’70s agony and who is about to be given a prestigious national award for his scientific career. Apropos of this event, a television crew is making a documentary about him. The sound engineer of this crew is Ludek, Pavel’s son-in-law, who has reasons for feeling aloof from him. Ludek’s wife, Lucie, is just emerging from a long hospitalization with a mixture of gratitude and caution about re-entry into the busyness of life. (She herself has a grown daughter who doesn’t figure greatly in the picture—she seems to be present for the purpose of including still another generation.) Lucie’s mother, Pavel’s wife, is Jana, quietly regal with experience.

Two other people must be cited. First is the ex-Communist who interrogated Pavel back in the ’70s, who is presumably being interviewed for the documentary, itself an extraordinary fact. He is proud of his skills and has only contempt for those of his colleagues back then who, through lack of talent, were forced to use torture. (His name is Kafka—not a rare name in that country.) And there is a sculptor named Borek, who was Jana’s lover long ago, before she married Pavel, and who now lives in Sweden. He was exiled for political reasons.

This little catalogue can at least suggest possible complications, and those complications are not film fodder. Each is highly pertinent to a fully breathing character. Given the people of this story, the trouble that we see had to follow. They not only engage us, but in a subtle way they acknowledge us. They are making themselves clear—as if instead of being an audience, we were a tribunal.

The climax, of course, is the award ceremony for Pavel, which is caught in the interweaving of past and present. This is the key scene for time and truth to grapple with each other. The story ends, we think at first, with reconciliations and acceptances—we actually see the words “The End.” Then, however, comes a very brief epilogue at a birthday party. The camera follows a large cake covered with candles as it is borne to the honoree, and when we see to whom it is presented, we note that time and truth are continuing to maul each other.

Jarchovský’s dialogue, to judge by subtitles, is sharp, almost disturbingly so, laced with intelligent satirical wit. Hrebejk directs with a camera that glides from moment to moment, face to face, answering questions that arise in us. His keen eye is aided by Martin Sacha’s intimate lighting. Hrebejk also has the ear of a musician. There is a long quarrel scene between Jana and Lucie, mother and daughter, that is shaped as a good conductor might have phrased and paced it. The playing of this scene is a beauty in itself.

No fantasy on our part could imagine a better cast. Martin Huba as Pavel combines dignity and depth perfectly. Daniela Kolárová as Jana and Lenka Vlasáková as Lucie are immediate and true. Milan Mikulcík as Ludek and Ladislav Chudík as Kafka seem to have lives before and after the film. The “show” part is Borek, the sculptor, who is iconoclastic, amused, amusing, tolerant, tacitly proud. Antonin Kratochvil makes the colorful most of the role.

The title of the film, like some other good titles, is not appreciated until after we see the work. Advance word may be helpful here. Kawasaki is a Japanese painter who lives in Sweden with Borek. He has been unable to paint ever since his wife and daughter were killed in an accident in Japan. Now the developments in the film lead him at last to some sense of order in existence, to the point where he can paint a large canvas of a rose. Still, he is a minor character, almost a spectator, and that these film-makers should have chosen his response for their title almost makes us feel that we, the real spectators, have painted a rose ourselves.


Lena Dunham, a young American woman, is luckier than the young American woman about whom she has made a film. Dunham can write and direct and act, and she wants to use her abilities. But the heroine of Tiny Furniture has no specific abilities and is not looking to do anything in particular.

Aura has just returned to New York after finishing college and is living with her mother, Siri, a successful photographer who has a smart place in Tribeca. Aura’s sister Nadine is around, too, from time to time. (Dunham’s actual mother and sister are—adequately—in the roles.) Aura doesn’t know what she wants to do with herself and isn’t upset about this state of mind. She meets old friends, makes new ones, and bops from encounter to encounter, feeling no kind of pressure. Eventually she gets a job as a receptionist at a café, but we don’t feel that she feels this is her future.

As for men, she meets a young man named Jed who has also just come to New York and is looking for a job—in a clearer though cool way. She pals up with Jed, and they even share a bed at one point, but there is no sex between them. They behave as if sex were OK but is urgent only for squares. She does in fact have sex once with a man who works in the café, and it takes place in a large piece of pipe that is lying in the street. This is meant less as squalor than as unimportance.

The tenor of Tiny Furniture is peculiarly familiar because many of us these days have seen an Aura, possibly quite close, in our lives. We can sentimentalize about the past and think that young people in the good old days knew where they wanted to go or at least where they had to go. This rosy nostalgia overlooks the constrictions that strapped the young back then in many instances. Certainly Aura today has more options, but she either doesn’t know what they are or doesn’t care about them. (The title is given a poke during the picture when we see some dollhouse furniture, used by Siri in her eccentric photographs, that possibly signifies the dimensions of Aura’s current existence.)

Films with slim plots, symbolic of the drifters within them, have been familiar at least since Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991). But Dunham takes the idea even further. Here there is not any consciousness of drifting, no braggadocio about it, no defiance of convention, as in some of those past pictures. Here there is much more the acceptance of what is by now almost another convention—pointlessness. No purpose in Aura’s life: therefore no cogent story for a film about her. Some things happen, that’s all. At the end Siri is much less patient with her daughter’s dallying, and Aura sort of agrees, yet without any grand resolution for the future.

Dunham, who has something of an eye as a director and some sense of scenic composition, must ipso facto have some daring. She made this film—after a few shorts and one feature—with a camcorder and a scarecrow budget, a film about someone who is her acute opposite. Aura is a lackadaisical young woman who just lackadaises along, and the active Dunham plays the part herself. Here there is further daring: the role seems to demand an actress who is in herself exceptionally interesting. Dunham must know that, in film terms at least, she doesn’t quite fill the bill. She is not especially attractive as a film figure, so she—consciously, we must assume—underscores Aura’s fix by not putting a powerhouse in the part.

Its very familiarity is what helps to keep this film going—a sort of serial recognition along with a touch of pathos. We can leave the question of what brought about this present-day vacuum of initiative for some young people to those who have already examined it microscopically. Generations have been given tags in recent decades, and the current one is apparently the Why Generation. Aura might as well wear a big button with that legend on it. Yet Dunham’s film, by its very existence, is a sort of glimmer in the gloaming. At any rate it holds Aura in an understanding sisterly embrace.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article ran in the December 30, 2010, issue of the magazine.

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