The Wolf from Royal Vineyard Street: An eccentric biopic
by Martin Kudláč
- KARLOVY VARY 2016: Jan Němec’s swan song takes a comedic, yet self-ironic look into the life of this fabled Czech filmmaker
One of the leading figures of the Czech new wave of the 1960s, Jan Němec, decided to cap off his filmography with the autobiographical comedy The Wolf from Royal Vineyard Street [+see also:
interview: Tomáš Klein
film profile], based on his collection of short, real-life stories Don’t Shake the Waiter’s Hand, and was selected in competition at this year's Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. The filmmaker's latest oeuvre became his last, as he died on the eve of the last day of shooting. The final touches were carried out by assisting director Tomáš Klein, creative producer Jakub Felcman and editor Josef Krajbich, supported by Němec’s wife, Iva Ruzseláková.
The renowned filmmaker chose two alter egos when re-enacting his story, which looks at his life from the decisive and controversial 1968 edition of Cannes through to his exile in the USA and his eventual return home. Karel Roden narrates the film (he also recorded the audiobook of Don’t Shake the Waiter’s Hand), with young actor and filmmaker Jiří Mádl portraying the director in front of the camera as Jan John, masterfully employing his boyish charm and cheekiness. Němec became a provocative and rebellious character, a nature manifested in his unorthodox approach to cinema – a reputation he aimed to live up to, even in his final opus. His style was characterised as dream realism, and he always dared to experiment with the form of film. He was the first to shoot a 3D feature film in the Czech Republic, Heart Beat 3D (2010), based on Václav Havel’s book.
Němec opens the movie by revealing the symbolism of using a wolf in the title: “The film has a wolf in the title, a wild, cunning and uncontrollable creature” – a sign that The Wolf from Royal Vineyard Street is no ordinary auto-biopic. Despite a tumultuous life, earning him the title of an enfant terrible, Němec opts to recall his adventures through the lens of comedy, albeit spiked with a subversive and self-ironic tone. His narration deviates from a matter-of-fact style to confabulation, revealing more about his personality and his style than the actual events do. In the same fashion as Alejandro Jodorowsky in The Dance of Reality [+see also:
film profile] and Endless Poetry [+see also:
film profile], he becomes the creator of his own myth through the use of various elements, from sarcastic one-liners and an assassination of Jean-Luc Godard to megalomaniac self-stylisation and, of course, ever-present tongue-in-cheek.
If a method of dream realism was instrumental to the substance, Němec’s stab at antirealist cinema played a role in the director’s approach to form. He constructs the project of self-mythification by applying idiosyncratic formal aesthetics, verging on punk formalism. In the beginning, the material is shot guerrilla-style during the 68th Cannes Film Festival, on the festival’s grounds, without permission, and in mostly improvised and loosely composed frames. Later on in the film, Jiří Mádl depicts some anecdotal encounters from the filmmaker’s life, such as the improvised meeting with Trump’s wife to secure funding, a scene about acquiring visas to attend “the funeral of communism”, and a raft of images comprised of what looks like archival footage, either from the arrival of Russian tanks in Prague, his stay in the USA, or even actual wedding videos that the director claims he was making in order to earn a living, imbued with the appropriate VHS patina of home movies. The Wolf from Royal Vineyard Street also packages up Němec’s legacy as a non-conformist filmmaker, achieved through a wide inventory of graphic eccentricities and a rather conceptual handling of film, including twisting and subverting the conventions of the biopic genre, thus appropriately affirming the filmmaker’s prominence.
The Wolf from Royal Vineyard Street was produced by Czech production outfit MasterFilm in co-production with Czech Television, post-production company UPP, French firm BocaLupo Films and Slovakia’s Medi Film. The Czech State Cinematography Fund and Slovak Audiovisual Fund both supported the movie.