Review: Forman vs. Forman
by Vladan Petkovic
- CANNES 2019: Helena Třeštíková and Jakub Hejna's documentary about Miloš Forman juxtaposes the director's life and creative output in Czechoslovakia and the USA
Forman vs. Forman [+see also:
film profile], the latest biographical documentary made as a collaborative effort by Czech filmmakers Helena Třeštíková and Jakub Hejna (after 2016's Doomed Beauty, on actress Lída Baarová), about great Czech director Miloš Forman, has just world-premiered in the Cannes Classics section of the Cannes Film Festival.
Taking a chronological approach and using archive footage from Forman's films, earlier interviews and documentaries (including Vera Chtylova's 1982 title Chtylova vs. Forman), private archives, and the director's own words from his autobiography What Do I Know?, narrated by his son Petr, Třeštíková and Hejna frame the director's life and creative output predominantly with reference to the relationship between his Czechoslovak years and subsequent exile in the USA.
Starting off with Forman's childhood, which he spent without parents, who died in Auschwitz, and moving on to his early years at FAMU, the filmmakers weave a complex but easy-to-follow story of a man who was as engaging a talker as he was a filmmaker.
"Our biggest inspiration was reacting to this enormous bullshit that was produced back then… It was the essence of boredom!" says Forman about the Czechoslovak cinema of the 1960s. He was instead impressed by Italian neorealism, and Audition and his second feature, Black Peter, reflect this in their presentation of real people with real problems, and their use of non-professional actors.
His international breakthrough, Loves of a Blonde (1965), was the first film to wake Western critics up to cinema made behind the Iron Curtain, and Firemen's Ball was one example of the unbelievable things that were happening in his life. First banned at home, and then released after Dubček's rise to power, it was invited to Cannes in 1968 – which was cancelled on the very day of its premiere. This segment also includes some priceless footage of the director being interviewed in swimming trunks on a Cannes beach.
In 1970, he was invited to the USA to "make a film about hippies" and instead came up with Taking Off, about the clueless parents of kids gone wild, which flopped at the box office but won a Grand Prix at Cannes. Forman relates how he spent two years living in the famous New York Chelsea Hotel, grappling with depression, until Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz invited him to direct One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which brought him his first Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture.
Forman explains how he found the story of individual versus an institution very familiar: "The Communist Party was our big nurse telling us what we could and couldn’t do," and Třeštíková and Hejna utilise this mix of biographical and political approach to comment on each of his films. Ragtime was a movie about a man's pride and dignity, The People vs. Larry Flynt was about freedom of speech, and the story of the shooting of Amadeus in Prague would make for a great documentary in its own right, with its mix of politics, art, culture clashes, and the relationship between the creator and his creation.
Forman saw himself more as a Salieri than a Mozart: "Always envying Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni…" A down-to-earth, pragmatic but immensely creative artist, he was also a man whose life included two sets of twin sons with two wives, and whose biggest flop, Valmont, was released at the same time as the start of the Velvet Revolution, led by his schoolmate Václav Havel. Třeštíková and Hejna's biographical-political approach might seem overly convenient, but it is certainly close enough to home and perfectly adequate for a 78-minute biopic.
Forman vs. Forman is a co-production by Prague-based Negativ and French company Alegria Productions, with the participation of Czech Television and ARTE France. Negativ also has the international rights.
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