For those with prior knowledge of his work, Petr Václav’s latest film We Are Never Alone may represent his career thus far in microcosm. It folds in the Roma subject matter of his lauded debut Marian; Karel Roden and Lenka Vlasáková star as a despairing couple, much like in Parallel Worlds; and Klaudia Dudová, the lead actress from recent hit The Way Out, appears.
Václav brings all of this together with undeniable flare and an eye for mundane absurdity, but the result is an uneven curio as much as a cumulative masterwork. He paints a bleak and frightening portrait of small town Czech Republic. It’s due in large part to the two most arresting characters: Roden’s bad-tempered hypochondriac and his new neighbour, a paranoid right-wing prison guard (Miroslav Hanus).
Roden in particular will be popular for playing against type here, much like Mads Mikkelsen in Men & Chicken, and it’s impossible to stifle guffaws, not least in a scene in which he attempts to safely smoke a cigarette by covering his tongue with a condom. The other man’s paranoia is less overtly hilarious but no less controlling; every room in his home is locked individually with his put-upon family having to knock to be admitted into the kitchen. He’s also equally concerned about other men chasing after his wife, though in reality she’s one of the few people not being pursued.
Vlasáková’s shopkeeper (married to Roden) lusts after local strip club bouncer Milan (Zdenek Godla), who is himself in love with dancer Sylva (Dudová), who in turns pines for her currently incarcerated husband. Every character is guided by unrelenting desperation, even the children of this tiny town play cruel pranks to exacerbate their parents psychoses in the hope of release. Each of the relationships passes comment on social mores, from the uniformly poor treatment of women to simmering racial tensions, but they struggle to coalesce into a fulfilling narrative, remaining disjointed vignettes that form a general atmosphere of alienation and hopelessness. Distance is further added by Vaclav’s inexplicable decision to shift between monochrome and colour at several apparently arbitrary points during the film.
The change in colour seems to add little meaning, but Stepán Kucera’s lensing in both formats commendably portrays the claustrophobia of their situations. The insidious resentments that fester are clearly pointing in the direction of social radicalisation, a stark warning as to the dangerously unstable ground upon which modern communities must exist. In part, this may be cultural – audiences in Karlovy Vary have responded well – but We Are Never Alone never seems to quite find its footing. For all of its hilarious moments and searing images – like a character attempting to staunch a gunshot wound with an envelope of cash – it never quite knows what to do with them.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson