Review: I, Olga Hepnarova

Tomas Weinreb’s and Petr Kazda’s fictionalized reimagining of the last woman to be executed in Czechoslovakia, in 1975, maintains a brutal fascination for its subject, played with unstinting sad-sack bravura by Michalina Olszanka, with an almost comical attention to detail. Even in the early scenes, when Olga is sent as a 13-year-old to a psychiatric hospital-cum-juvenile detention center following a suicide attempt and is violently bullied, come across as mockumentary takes on the idea of Eastern European brutalist cinema—long takes in black-and-white and low contrast lighting, with amateurish actors doing their best not to look at the camera. This aesthetic aligns with the filmmakers’ preference for not giving too much away, and while the source of Olga’s suffering is easy to discern, the particulars are never clear. She obsesses over her patrimony, though there’s nothing in the early scenes to indicate which of the men in her nominal household is supposed to be her father, if any. Her mother is a physician who can use the state system to get Olga the care she needs (including medication, which is how she attempts to kill herself), but that’s all the information we have about her—that, and she seems unmoved by Olga’s professed pathology. “You look angry,” one new acquaintance says to her later on. “I always look angry,” Olga replies, as if looking were being.

The middle part of the movie is more interesting in the way it develops Olga’s character both apart from her identification as a social incompetent and within a closed circle of people. Particularly noteworthy is the way her therapists, unlike her mother, actually attempt to empathize with her situation, which appears to be a comment not only on the relatively advanced state of socialized medicine in Czechoslovakia but an acknowledgement of how Olga’s peculiar predicament was something that could be understood by a fairly wide cross-section of people. Having missed out on a large chunk of school while institutionalized, Olga gives up on education and finds work as a driver (of both people and goods), a profession for which she has a talent. Living on her own in a drafty hut that she treats as a pigsty, Olga makes some attempt at a normal life, but her need to feel oppressed and mocked always asserts itself. After she embarks on a series of ravenous lesbian relationships she actually expects the medical establishment to help her get a new girlfriend as part of her treatment, and when her doctor says “finding you a partner isn’t healthcare,” she adds homosexuality to the ever-growing list of attributes that only prove to herself she’s hopelessly damaged. 

As the title implies, much of the movie is told through Olga’s perspective, mostly diary entries in which she keeps warning herself that the only recourse she has is to kill someone so as to prove to society that what they’ve done to her is inexcusable, and yet when she carries out her deadly plan it’s still shocking, probably because the visceral quality of the scene contrasts so starkly with Olga’s enervated behavior. In court, she tries to make a philosophical case for her murderous rampage, and during psychological investigations into her motives, her interrogators, like the doctors before them, seem genuinely perceptive of her reasoning. With her chain-smoking, preternaturally lean physique, and perpetually downcast demeanor, Olga Hepnarova often looks like a bad stereotype of the disaffected teenager, but apparently Czechoslavia was filled with such people. The fact that Olga was hanged might indicate that so many others like her didn’t follow their disaffected attitude to its natural extreme. It’s as if Weinreb and Kazda wanted to question whether her pain was real or just another adolescent pose.

In Czech. Now playing in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114).

I, Olga Hepnarova home page in Japanese

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