Never Say Die: 'Autumn Spring' & 'Something's Gotta Give'
Cooper, Rand Richards, Commonweal
Come year's end, with Hollywood serving up another round of high-gloss, $100-million epics, it's nice to be able to turn to European movies. Not only for a change of scale, but also a different palate of emotions and ideas. Take the idea, for instance, that confronting old age--the waning of energies and options, the loss of a best friend--might form the basis of comedy, and that spry absurdity might be wrung from the themes of aging and grief. Welcome to the Central European sensibility and to Autumn Spring, Vladimir Michalek's feisty and bittersweet comedy of life after seventy-five.
Autumn Spring, which opened in the United States a few months ago and is now available on DVD, begins with the visit of a wealthy retired conductor to the vast estate he's viewing for prospective purchase in the Czech countryside. The maestro is distinctly unimpressed. "Very shabby," he sniffs to his personal assistant, as the real estate agent frowns in dismay. Yet all is not exactly as it seems. For the maestro is an impostor. In truth, Fanda (Vlastimil Brod-sky) is a retiree of modest means, and the would-be personal assistant is his best friend, Eda (Stanislav Zindulka). Touring mansions they can't possibly afford to buy is a favorite con of theirs, one pulled just for kicks. A rascal, a scamp, Fanda lives by his devotion to the grand gesture. He'll ride the train without a ticket, then, when caught, cordially pay the fine--and give the conductor a big tip. He "borrows" the paper early every morning from a neighbor's mailbox, and returns it with the crossword puzzle filled in. His life is about getting away with things; his old age is a perpetual boyhood.
It drives his wife of forty-four years crazy. "Stop playing the fool and take life seriously!" Emilie (Stella Zazvorkova) commands her incorrigible husband. What Emilie takes most seriously is death. She lives in a bustle of preparation for her own--and Fanda's--death, perpetually updating a file of materials that includes death notices and instructions for flowers, music, and casket; she has turned responsibility into a substitute for life itself. Fanda wants no part of it. He makes paper planes out of the death notices, and rolls his eyes in dismay during their walks to the cemetery where their son, Jara, has chosen a grave for them. Jara has his own agenda; he wants to move them into senior housing, so he can have their apartment for his ex-wife and kids.
It is a numbing crunch of late-life pressures, and Fanda responds with flights of grandiosity and guile. With Eda, he roams the city pulling whimsical pranks and telling whopper lies. Inevitably the tall tales land him in trouble. With an irate real estate agent chasing them for $400 spent wooing them for an afternoon, Fanda and Eda trundle around town, trying to hit up various friends for a loan. The outrageous stories they tell--in one, Eda has a prospective part in a major motion picture lined up, but needs $400 of tap dancing lessons to get it--inevitably backfire, and the two end up helping out friends even shorter of cash than they are. Yet the lies, we understand, have a purpose all their own. They make life grand, and that makes it worth living.
Simply conceived and executed, Autumn Spring dishes out scenes that touch the heart with a surprising deftness. When Fanda chivalrously helps a much younger woman with packages in the hallway of the apartment building, the two exchange a look of warmth, and a sweetly haunted sympathy extends across the gulf of age. Time's passage looms. Later on, Fanda wheels Eda, stricken by a stroke, around a hospital garden. "It's gone too fast," Eda says, simply.
As Eda's health declines, the movie turns increasingly poignant. Still, director Michalek and his screenwriter, Jiri Hubac, keep upping the comic ante. Eventually Emilie's frustrations lead the couple to divorce court and a hearing before a skeptical judge. …