Directors: Petr Kazda, Tomás Weinreb
Stars: Michalina Olszanska, Marika Soposká, Klára Melísková
Looking strikingly like a young Scarlett Johansson auditioning for the part of Mathilda in Luc Besson’s Leon, Michalina Olszanska stars in I, Olga Hepnarová, a new film which attempts to dissect the life of its focus; a woman who, in 1973, deliberately drove a truck into a crowd of innocent people in Prague.
It’s a tempting thing for filmmakers to try to riddle out the motives and thought processes behind such seemingly insane or desperate acts of violence and terrorism, and the pitfalls are often difficult to avoid. By cliffnoting which life experiences are depicted and how, it’s easy to force a prejudiced narrative upon the viewer. Knowing nothing about Olga Hepnarová before meeting with this film, I can’t comment on the veracity of what is shown. To many viewers outside of its native Czech Republic, I, Ogla Hepnarová will come without the weight of factual representation hanging over it. It will merely play as a stark, art house character piece.
On these terms there’s an enjoyable, charming if not familiar punk tone to proceedings, at least at first. Olszanska plays Olga with the slouching, stooped demeanour redolent of countless sullen teenagers seen in western cinema and even parodies thereof. Directed by Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb, the film is presented in a beautifully crisp and chilly monochrome palette (indicative of Olga’s icy detachment from society), so visually it fits the bill where expectations of the Euro art house are concerned. But with its early scenes of all-girl reform school bullying and long, luxurious pit stops in lesbian erotica, it is also inclined to display fielty to the grindhouse circuit, albeit dressed up very, very prettily. Those art house sensibilities prevail however. There is no music. Interiors are sparse. Exteriors are brittle and unforgiving. And, as things progress, any notion of punk posturing gives way to sterile reality.
Olga’s sexual orientation, her forays into gay clubs and her stop-start romance with Jitka (Marika Soposká) feel, to begin with, like acts of defiance against her clearly conservative family. Yet as she carves out her own life in solitude, these expressions grow into something more honest; a defined sense of self. Indeed, the self is Olga’s primary interest. That nominative singular pronoun of the film’s title grows increasingly key.
“I know I’m a psycho, but I’m an enlightened one,” she says, directly into camera. A little on the nose, but Kazda and Weinreb afford her a philosophy. Olga reads from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, finding solace in the idea of individualism and the notion that knowing or understanding others is futile. She has found justification to recede and construct for herself a finely tuned persecution complex. Again, it initially feels like a veneer of counter-culturalism as a way to act out against the confines and borders of ‘normal’ society. She lives by this idea, drawing strength from herself instead of the world of values around her. Calling herself enlightened is self-aggrandising, but as Olga closes the doors on the humanity and increasingly recognises herself only, it’s entirely fitting.
Olszanka is extraordinary in the lead, her piercing gaze cutting its way through the film. She imbues Olga with a considered sense of identity. When she speaks to a therapist in the midsection about her readily apparent disconnect from the world – which she sees as inanimate matter – Olszanka convinces absolutely. And while Olga certainly seems single-minded, Olszanka allows subtleties into her performance that hint of a fragile person haunted by doubts and resentments and her swelling martyrdom. There’s a bristling outer strength but also an undercurrent; a tentativeness in some situations that allows for some compassion.
How much compassion should she be afforded? It’s one of the film’s main provocative questions, perhaps more-so for modern audiences following the events that occurred in Nice earlier this year. When the scene finally occurs, it feels dreamlike, unreal for its matter-of-fact presentation. It is awful and unsentimental. Destructive acts like the one Olga ultimately committed should not be advocated, but I, Ogla Hepranová at least attempts to afford them some context. From here it becomes something for the viewer to contemplate; a choice which, fittingly, must be made on one’s own.
Olga’s stilted world view is valid to her; a perspective she is entitled to hold and one which isn’t dangerous in and of itself if housed in a balanced mind. Unfortunately, this was not the case. The greater failing here, from her perspective, is that of the society around her – her family’s indifference and the far from substantive contributions made by the Soviet Czechoslovakian mental health care system (hardly a pioneering force). Or are these just excuses? Kazda and Weinreb’s film is from Olga’s perspective but it walks a fine line between empathy and judgement. Sympathy for the devil? That’s up to you.