The final film of the 2012 Made in Prague season is the contemporary drama The House. Like other films in the festival it has already won awards, something that bodes well for first-time director Zuzana Liová, who is also the film’s screenwriter. The House played in the Official Selection of the 2011 Berlin Film Festival and official selections at other festivals throughout the year, winning at the Palm Springs Film Festival and was bestowed the Krzysztof Kieslowski Award at the Cannes International Film Festival. It’s also good to see Slovakian co-productions in this festival – a country which, of course, previously made up Czechoslovakia and continues to have an influential legacy on Czech productions. The cast of The House are from both Czech and Slovak backgrounds.
In a small village in the Nitra district of west-central Slovakia, Imrich is building a new house in the garden of the family home. The house is for his younger daughter Eva who will soon be graduating from high school. The village is quiet and gloomy which probably explains why everyone is miserable and pessimistic. Imrich has disowned his eldest daughter Jana because she was married at a young age, to a local guy called Milan who he doesn’t approve of and whose family he has known. Jana has three children, the oldest seven and the youngest a baby. Though she lives close-by, she is estranged from her father. Imrich is determined that Eva will not suffer the same fate as his older daughter but Eva, who is also practically estranged from her father for his stubborn miserable attitude, wants to escape and go to London. Adding further complications is the fact that Eva is having a secret affair with her English teacher Jakub who has returned after spending seven years in London and is married with a young family. Jakub would be the catalyst for Eva’s escape but, after buying cheap land locally, is settling down in the village again.
The central theme of the film is that of inter-generational conflict which is extrapolated intelligently by the director and it progressively becomes more of a character study of Imrich rather than Eva. Despite his moral superiority and demonstrative (although often muted) disappointment and disdain for the younger generation, it doesn’t stop Imrich stealing bricks from his eldest daughter’s unfinished house while forcing Eva to help him build the new one when he knows she should be concentrating on her studies. It slowly transpires that Imrich – stubborn, defiant, angry and bitter – has good reasons for his world-weary and wounded emotions. At heart he only wants the best for his daughters and in an outburst reveals that the grandfather of Eva’s husband Milan was responsible for his own father going to jail then impounded his land for the collective farm. These are little snippets of the emotional baggage that Imrich has been carrying through the years. His wife Viera plays the part of muted homemaker, supporting her husband while struggling to unite the family.
Eva, meanwhile, at once miserable and resigned but with the optimism of youth, in her plan of leaving the small village and her overbearing father, regularly skips school to earn money for her escape to England. She works as a cleaner, a distributor of flyers and charges her fellow students for help with their homework. However, what happens when she gets to England seems vague. Even Imrich, aware of her plans and ultimately resigned to her individual will, reasonably expresses his doubts to Eva’s mother Viera that she will just be another victim of the many East Europeans that have sought happiness in London only to fail miserably. Eva plays organ in the village church which Imrich and his wife attend services devotedly. However, religion and its practices are never mentioned outside or within the family home. Though she initially appears to be the film’s agent of change, Eva is trapped emotionally and domestically. Progressively Eva spends more days and nights away (including a trip to Krakow with Jakub) from home with the excuse that she’s studying with friends but her situation ultimately catches up with her.
Sometimes a humorous portrait of family generational conflict, The House is an impressive and engaging debut with interesting and realistic characters caught up in the pressures of modern life. Long-takes and studied poses articulated by the director make for a slow-paced but compelling and tense melodrama that is (at least in mood) a world away from the slapstick humour of Martin Šulík’s The Garden (1995), a film about family conflict and inheritance which is also set in a Slovak village. This film also shows that people living in a village are just as much (perhaps more so) faced with the overbearing problems of supporting a happy domestic life with the pressures of employment. The emotional detachment this causes is a universal theme but, in this instance, is interestingly transposed to a remote part of Slovakia.
Although the film does not have a happy ending, Imrich’s change of heart means there is redemption of sorts for all the characters involved. The House does indeed raise many questions and the audience will have the chance to talk to the director, who will be present for the introduction and Q&A after the film’s 6.30pm gala screening this evening at The Gate Cinema in London’s Notting Hill.