Sunday, October 23, 2016

Prokletí domu Hajnù (1989)

... aka: Damned House of Hajn, The
... aka: Invisible
... aka: Invisible Man, The
... aka: Uncle Cyril

Directed by:
Jirí Svoboda

Peter Svejcar (Emil Horváth) started from humble beginnings as son to a poor couple (including an alcoholic father) but lucked out (well, sort of) that a senile old man took pity on him and wanted to pay for him to get a better education. He did and made a decent life for himself working as an engineer until he was fired. Now middle age and out of work, Peter has hooked up with the lovely and much younger Sonia (Petra Vancíková). He'd perhaps like to marry her, and has bought her an expensive ring made of her moonstone, but first he needs to get a family blessing and accompanies Sonia back to her family's huge mansion in the small town of Jesenice for an extended stay.  Things are extremely odd right off the bat, with everyone, family and staff alike, behaving strangely and secretively. Sonia's mother is said to have abandoned them, but her father Hugo (Radoslav Brzobohatý), who runs a soap factory, lives there along with his rude, elderly great aunt Caroline (Valérie Kaplanová) and the staff. Over dinner, Auntie makes an odd comment that poor Sonia has had “bad luck with suitors” in the past but doesn't elaborate on that.

Also occupying the house is Uncle Cyril (Petr Cepek) aka the family shame. He's a laughing, maniacal, voyeuristic, cat-hating madman who lives in the attic and paints creepy abstract pictures on nearly everything he comes into contact with. Cyril used to be a brilliant academic when he was younger but one day out of the blue he suddenly started to believe that he'd become invisible. After spending six months in an asylum and (supposedly) being mistreated there, the family took over custody of him and brought him back home to live out the rest of his days. Now everyone plays along and pretend that they can't see him either.

The family, who actually hired a private eye to learn all he could about Peter prior to him even coming there, soon start trying their future son-in-law's patience. Auntie makes rude comments about his impoverished upbringing and confesses she lives for the past, reading and then burning one letter from a male admirer every evening before bed. The home is one of an underlying suspicion about Peter and his true intentions. Does he really love Sonia or is he only marrying her for her money after having fallen on hard times? Peter ignores flirtatious servant Katy (Evelyna Steimarová) when she warns him that he should run away while he still can, and goes through with the marriage. The two move into a separate wing of the house (yes, it's THAT big) and can't even get through their honeymoon without Uncle Cyril spoiling the consummation with his peeping tom routine.

Peter goes to work in the factory making scented soaps but Cyril's strange behavior is having a psychological toll on Sonia. Peter promises her they'll move out but when Hugo gets wind of it, he threatens to bequeath everything to a local orphanage and downgrade Peter to a grunt position if he takes Sonia away. With Katy's help, Peter gets his hands on some of Cyril's paintings and perverted scribblings, which show he has incestuous designs on his niece. Even that's not enough of a red flag. Nothing is done and one day he manages to get in her room and rapes her. Perhaps it's not the first time. Katy catches them and pulls him off. Against Catherine's wishes, he's finally put into a straight jacket and hauled off to the nuthouse... but someone else is about to take his place as the household's resident crazy.

Traumatized from the event, Sonia starts going insane. She alternates between going on crazy, teary-eyed, screaming rants and jovially skipping around the mansion grounds, plays the same song at the piano over and over again and refuses to sleep in the same bed with her husband, let alone have sex with him, which prompts Peter to take Katy (who also occasionally sleeps with Hugo) as a lover. When it's revealed that she's pregnant, she's convinced that Cyril is the father and the baby is going to be invisible, too. She ignores the baby's cries, hides him all around the house, feeds him bread so that he chokes, bites him, bruises him, etc. and also believes an invisible Cyril has escaped and is still lurking around the house. Eventually, she must be quarantined in a room in the house and kept away from the baby.

Really (and I mean really) beautifully photographed by Vladimír Smutný with constant use of lots of rich, saturated colors. This is one of those films where you can tell that great care has gone into the look of every single shot and how it is staged, dressed, lit and photographed, with nice use made out of things like stained glass, mirrors, fog and fans to make it look even more opulent. In addition, this throws in some wacky camerawork that would make Bava and Argento envious with shots prowling the outside of the house, swooping out of trees and descending upon people and so forth. There are strong performances across the board and fairly well-defined, albeit highly unpleasant, characters. The plot is interesting but seems of secondary concern next to the visual presentation.

Based on Jaroslav Havlíček's novel Neviditelný (or “Invisible”), which is essentially a negative critique of the greedy bourgeois way of life, this does honor the novel by touching on the corrupting influence of wealth and trying to maintain a certain stature within a community. The director was a graduate of FAMU and later taught film, TV and media arts there. He was also heavily involved in politics in his home country (and was a former member of the Communist party) and unsuccessfully ran for the Prague Senate in 1996 as an independent.

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