A severed head opens his eye before being carried to the guillotine that severed it… and thus ends, Oldrich Lipský’s audacious Happy End (aka Onnellinen Loppu), a film like no other, even within the purview of the Czech New Wave. You see, Happy End is a film that takes place completely in reverse, and by that I mean all the footage is literally IN REVERSE, starting at the end and winding its way back to the beginning. What should be a mere gimmick emerges as one of the triumphs of the Czech New Wave. You have never seen a film like this, and I doubt you ever will again.
As a medium, film, by it’s very nature, plays with the passage of time. Through over a hundred years of evolution and refinement, the viewer has become conditioned to jump cuts that thrust us forward unnaturally in time. We don’t batter an eyelid. With Happy End the nature of time, even within the distorted prism of cinema, has been completely subverted. While the film plays in reverse, the narration by our leading man, Bedrich Frydrych, moves forward, treating the reversed action as the correct order of events. The beginning literally becomes the end. This is better illustrated by an example… as Bedrich’s beheading reverses itself out of existence he comes in possession of a suitcase containing the limbs of his wife – the reason for the beheading we’ve just seen. Filtered through the film’s twisted internal logic, this suitcase becomes almost like a wife kit, which Bedrich must assemble himself in order to attain the new bride within. Rather than dismembering his wife, he uses his knife to put her together. The incredible juxtaposition of reversed footage and forward narration clicks together perfectly. All of a sudden, Bedrich’s backward journey begins to make sense.
What begins as a curio of experimental cinema soon becomes a solidified narrative. For Bedrich, the happy end he seeks becomes escaping from (or unmeeting) his wife, who he believes is the cause of his woes. Past becomes future and actions are erased. Via his narration, each past event becomes an absurd aspect of Bedrich’s unfolding future. And this raises another point about Happy End… it’s incredibly funny. There’s an almost slapstick quality to many of the unfolding/refolding scenes. What, in forward motion, should be the murder of his wife becomes a strange macabre tango as she is un-murdered. Bedrich is bemused by his shrinking child who eventually becomes a newborn before retreating back into his mother. The flirtations between Bedrich’s wife and a suitor, Ptacek, which ultimately leads to the affair that results in murder, becomes an imposition that starts at sexual passion and reverts to an initial encounter.
A re-occurring theme in Happy End and, indeed, in many Czech New Wave films, is the relationship to food. On an aesthetic level, there is something very visually compelling about watching people un-eat their food. Within the Czech New Wave, the use of food also serves a more subversive purpose. Within the communist government that Czechoslovakia were immersed in at the time of the New Wave, food shortages ran rampant in the country. In many instances, frivolous use of food was a key reason given for many of the films being banned. Happy End dwells on the luscious platters of food that are decadently un-consumed. It’s hard not to look upon this tendency as a commentary on Czechoslovakia’s food situation in general.
On a technical level, Happy End is a real feat. The film was shot in a typical manner and the whole thing was then reversed in post-production. The actors then needed to dub their dialogue over their reversed dialogue. While the dialogue is spoken normally, the sequence is faithfully reversed. Answers become questions and vice versa. Revelations lead to the mystery. It doesn’t take long to orient yourself and it soon leads to more amusement. Accidental answers are created that seem to match the narrator’s understanding of proceedings. It throws up a strange reality wherein the future predicts what occurred before it.
So what we’re left with is one of the most outrageous, daring, hilarious and whimsically unnerving films ever made. It provides further validity to the importance e of the Czech New Wave. It remains frustratingly unavailable for easy DVD purchase. Here’s hoping the burgeoning Czech New Wave excavation led by companies like Second Run and Eclipse add Happy End to their roster, as it’s one of the best.