After her staggering visual and philosophical odyssey, The Fruit of Paradise (1970), Vera Chytilová found herself serving a lengthy ban from filmmaking in Czechoslovakia. Shackled by the clamp-downs of the Soviet regime, when she did finally return to feature filmmaking after seven years in the cold, she was forced to reject much of the formal abandon that had characterised her early masterpieces. Despite this, from The Apple Game (1977) onwards she continued to make cinema that challenged and provoked with equal verve. Even as late as the 1990s, the sexagenarian Chytilová continued to play with subversive themes, not least 1998’s Traps.
A knockabout sex romp about rape and castration, it embraces its bawdy genre trappings while twisting them to its own ends; a searing and complex discourse on the ingrained patriarchy of her home country. Chytilová always felt uneasy being labelled as a feminist – eschewing the baggage that being part of a Western movement inherently front-loaded in the hope of rising above common vernacular in the search of truth. She sought individualism through her innovation, and Traps is a rousing example of a filmmaker cleverly appropriating the cinematic language of the institution in order to rail against it. From a foreshadowing opening montage of piglets being castrated by a vet, it is right in the faces of male audience members, telling them to cross their legs and get uncomfortable.
Even more so than in later of scenes of vengeful retribution, the bawdy tone of the narrative’s catalyst – the rape scene – engenders great discomfort as attack verges into slapstick territory and begins to resemble a Carry On film. It’s a fantastic and sharp turnabout, adopting a genre that often undermines women to present the darker extremes of precisely that to shock and appal. The woman, Lenka (Zuzana Stivínová), then has her vengeance when she feigns amnesia after a knock on the head and drugs her attackers when they escort her home. They awake to find their entitled manliness taken from them in brutal fashion. Despite the righteousness of her actions, though, Lenka is portrayed as have reacted in the extreme. This is not the case of satisfied and titillating revenge fantasy and Chytilová has no interest in easy answers. All three of the characters involved are irrevocably damaged by the events even as the audience chuckles as the ghastly men staggering along in pain. Their occupations also allow for wider stinging attacks on contemporary Czech society – an ad man and a local government official; purveyors not just of lies but the oppressive sexual politics that provide the misogynistic milieu. It’s to the credit of the wonderful Chytilová that she tackles all of this amid queasy absurdist humour that can’t help but make you laugh while your stomach churns.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson