I, Olga Hepnarová
Directed by Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb
Opens March 24 at the Village East
A biopic without the triumph, and a bildungsroman without the progress, the European co-production I, Olga Hepnarová, the coolly poised feature debut of writer-directors Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb, depicts a drumbeat of humiliations and rejections as they’re processed by an increasingly malignant personality. Shot in steely black and white through a constant plume of cigarette smoke, Olga ably conveys the throttling atmosphere of Communist Prague—if not always the particular relevance of its story—as it takes a cold, hard look at the troubled psychology of the last woman to be put to death in Czechoslovakia, the person who, in 1973, at the age of 22, killed eight pedestrians after deliberately jumping the curb on a city street. Here, the solid lead performance by Polish actress Michalina Olszanska (The Lure), a smolder of awkward nihilism, more or less is the movie.
So much for decorum: Not long after this dour tale of mental illness, sexual frustration, and social exclusion gets underway, we see Olga vomiting into (and onto) a gleaming porcelain toilet, the result of what turns out to be a failed suicide attempt. She soon leaves her unfeeling family for a girls’ mental institution, where she’s taunted and abused by her peers, but appears to find some misanthropic solace in the written word (in one journal entry, delivered to us via voiceover, she cites Graham Greene’s then-prescient Vietnam novel The Quiet American). Once she’s out and living on her own—in a lonely, barely heated hut in the woods—she falls for a female coworker (Marika Soposká) who quickly loses interest in turn; despite a liaison with another woman during her later stint in a work dormitory, Olga declares herself a “sexual cripple” incapable of real human intimacy. And indeed she retreats inward: The defining gesture of Olszanska’s performance is the way she hangs on each cigarette she smokes, wrapping her fingers around it and bending her head down to it (rather than vice versa), as if her entire body were oriented around the tiny little cylinder. This sort of private contortion goes a long way toward making Olga, with her ill-fitting wide-wale cords and brutalist bob of a haircut and ravenous gaze, legible (if not entirely sympathetic) as a human profoundly uncomfortable in her own skin. The crisp focus and static camera of Adam Sikora’s cinematography further underline this trait, encouraging close behavioral observation on the part of the viewer.
Olga eventually decides she’s left with only two options in life—to kill herself or to kill others—a determination she uses to justify her eventual crime, an act of vengeance against a society she sees as having done nothing but marginalize and mistreat her. As it makes a late detour into the jailhouse and the courtroom, the film itself seems unsure of how to handle its protagonist’s pitiless philosophy, acknowledging its intellectual scaffolding (at trial, she makes a lengthy and high-minded statement)—and at times even appearing to agree with some of its diagnoses (for one thing, many of Olga’s nemeses here seem to be scarcely less mean-spirited than she is)—while simultaneously discounting it all as the product of a disordered mind (one late scene in particular suggests a splintering of her personality). As a work of analysis, I, Olga Hepnarová appears much more at home as a portrait of a single psychology than as a broader anatomy of a crime. But perhaps its most disquieting suggestion is actually an upshot of its failure on the latter score: Any attempt to make sense of what this woman did is, at the end of the day, just guessing.