Director of Photography:
Running time: 94 minutes
Original title: Poupata
Misery loves company, and whatever shape that company takes, real or illusory, the happiness, however short-lived, can make for powerful storytelling.
The plot of the Czech film Flower Buds (Poupata) is steeped in distress and hopelessness, but it is a slow-motion car crash from which we cannot turn our eyes away even for a second.
Similar in tone, though not in style, to the despair that seeps through the work of Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Inárritu (especially in 21 Grams and Biutiful), Flower Buds is constructed out of small, well-chosen incidents that sustain each other and never come across as either contrived or superfluous.
Set around Christmastime in and around the small industrial town of Nové Sedlo in the north-west of the country, most of the scenes feature a factory in the background that pumps smoke into the crisp air of the countryside.
In the opening scene, we find Jarda at his post next to a railway crossing, where he receives telephone calls to inform him of approaching trains, as a result of which he has to lower and raise the boom for the odd car that passes by. After work, he heads straight for the local herna bar, or mini-casino, one of those infamous bastions of decadence found almost everywhere in the Czech Republic, where he exchanges yet another heirloom for a shot at the jackpot.
Jarda is, without a doubt, the most tragic character in the film, and Vladimír Javorský plays him without any sugarcoating. Though he is already on a steady downhill slide when we meet him, we quickly realise he has been caught in the web of his gambling addiction for a very long time. His wife, Kamila, knows the family is in dire straits (though she has no idea just how bad the situation actually is, or is about to be) and tries to help out by undressing to pose for a calendar, together with fellow exercise friends, with the goal of earning some extra money. Kamila has dreams of visiting the Amazon and believes her husband is saving up to make that dream come true.
Meanwhile, Jarda’s teenage son, Honza, is smitten with a stripper named Carmen, or Zuzana, who performs at the same herna bar from time to time, and he sets his sights on “saving” her, although he luckily doesn’t have any ambitions of being Travis Bickle.
The characters are all at the end of a slippery rope – we also learn early on that Honza’s sister is pregnant, though the identity of the father is left ambiguous – and have little to no hope of climbing back up. A Vietnamese couple, friends of the family, is also enduring enormous hardship. Despite having spent many years in the Czech Republic, they do not speak the language well and feel completely out of place in this place where it seems, from the look of the film, they have been condemned to an eternal winter.
Jarda tells them to get used to living here, to start thinking in this language and let it be a part of who they are, but it is difficult to consider him a serious model to look up to, given his own spiral of hopelessness. Viewers will find themselves easily sympathising with the Vietnamese couple, though, as their refrain of “Do prdele se sněhem!” (Roughly translated as “This snow can go to hell!”) is both endearing and a very understandable, perhaps even recognisable, cry for help, especially to anyone who has ever suffered from a feeling dépaysement in a new, very different environment.
On the surface, this is a small, character-driven drama set in a small town where the herna bar offers hope of a better tomorrow while at the same time crushing those dreams in front of our very eyes.
It is therefore refreshing to see how director Zdeněk Jiráský discovers surprising lyricism – beauty is too strong a word – in the rough elements that make up his story: a middle-aged woman in a red track suit doing her morning exercise outside in the snow with a fuming factory behind her; a drunk teenager dressed up as an angel walking around in the snow at night time, eerily lit up by the lights of the same factory in the distance; a short but agonising track-out from Jarda as he feeds his life insurance to the slot machine, a shot that embodies our desire to flee such a scene of desperation.
Flower Buds is an examination of obsession every bit as potent as Requiem for a Dream, but it is rooted firmly in realism rather than hyperrealism. This is an epically tragic film that is not at all a depressing viewing experience and demands to be seen.