The Party and the Guests [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Second Run
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (17th February 2022).
The Film

An idyllic picnic beside the river on a sunny day must come to an end as the seven participants, must go home and change into even more formal attire to set themselves apart from the others at a village celebration in the evening. On their way down the path in the woods towards their cars, they observe a procession that appears to be a wedding party, the upscale appearance of the party stirs envy in the picnic vivacious hostess (The Fifth Horseman is Fear's Jana Pracharová) to which her older husband (The Joke's Evald Schorm) reacts with annoyance. The picnickers soon find themselves surrounded by several men, unassuming, vaguely threatening. "Old democrat" Karel (Firemen's Ball's Karel Mares) is immediately discomfited when cheery ringleader Rudolf (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders' Jan Klusák) links arms with him, herding him while the others are seemingly more easily corralled – as much due to the proximity of the men as the continuous prattle of Josef (All My Good Countrymen's Jiri Nemec) as he attempts to flatter an explanation out of their captors – into a clearing.

As the men set up a desk and chair for Rudolf, the picnicker all seem to be anticipating some sort of inquisition, and Frantisek "helpfully" suggests that they segregate by sex; whereupon one of the men draws pens around them in the dirt. Loquacious lawyer Frantisek (A Case for a Rookie Hangman's Pavel Bosek) easily betrays his social awkwardness under the ambiguous-yet-provocative questions of Rudolf, and Marta (Helena Pejsková) and Eva (Zdena Skvorecka) are the most obvious in their growing fear of the situation, but it is Karel who is on the receiving end of an explosion of violence when he refuses to participate any longer in what appears to be some macabre prank given Rudolf's childish fit in response. Suddenly, a distinguished older man (The Tailor from Ulm's Ivan Vyskocil) appears, chiding Rudolf and the men for the most unconventional way they have taken to invite the picnickers to his daughter's wedding banquet beside the river. For the hostess, Marta, Eva, and Josef, all seems forgiven – more so from Frantisek who compliments their new host's adopted son Rudolf on his acting abilities – but their former host seems unamused, as does Karel. Once they arrive at the banquet and take their seats, the viewer sees how easily and effortlessly it is for allegiances and blame to shift, even violently so.

Slight but rich in pathways (and vertiginous spirals) of interpretation, Jan Nemec's The Party and the Guests immediately caused a stir, provoking suspicions of covert criticism of authoritarianism which are admittedly easy to read into a scenario so deliberately absurd, nay surreal. If Nemec and Czech New Wave muse Ester Krumbachová (Fruit of Paradise), as the former claimed – as cited in the extras for the Second Sight Blu-ray release – had intended an allegory something more universal and social rather than political – indeed, the opening picnic at first has the atmosphere of a pastorale albeit peopled by middle class civil functionaries and their fashionable wives rather than shepherds and maidens (even a scene of the women changing clothes in the stream is more voyeuristic than lyrical) – then it is entirely possible that the charges levied against it are because Czech society of the period could recognize the timeless dance of social maneuvering in which many will engage in order to obtain a seat at the table through the acts of flattery and putdowns of their compatriots. When the picnic hostess' husband abruptly leaves the party, the others try to quell her crying so as not to spoil the party, and she is not saddened but embarrassed about her abandonment (she was earlier scene trying to convince her husband to attend the party as an "opportunity") while the host voices concern about her emotional state but also seems to take a guest departing suddenly as a personal insult. Karel is relentlessly badgered for his reserved attitude as being sulky for falling for an act rather than being the victim of an assault, and even blamed by his friends for breaking what they understood at the time as the rules (or laws) by crossing the barrier of their pen and trying to walk away. In retrospect, the joking of Frantisek as he herds his own friends into segregated pens seems less like a means of alleviating tension than a bureaucrat shrugging his shoulders in a means that imparts a conciliatory "it's stupid, I know" but really means "just do it already." When the party decides to go retrieve the hostess' husband, the dialogue suggests that they mean to cheer him up but the use of dogs to track him suggests a hunting party. Snippets of dialogue among the guests suggest the use of position to facilitate illicit activities, including some from the principal seven possibly making greater sense of the desire of some of them to ingratiate themselves with their replacement host. In spite of the film's success at film festivals and abroad, the Czech government's decision that the film be "banned forever" crippled Nemec's domestic career apart from documentaries and television, then self-exile to Germany and the Netherlands where he worked in television, and later in the United States where – apart from serving as "special consultant" on Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being when documentary footage he shot decades earlier of Soviet troupes rolling into Prague was mixed with new footage of the cast to suggest their presence on the scene – he innovated the use of video to document weddings, returning to Czechoslovakia in 1989 where he resumed his filmmaking career and accepted a teaching position at his alma mater FAMU (Filmová a televizní fakulta Akademie múzických umění v Praze) until his death in 2016.


Released in the United States in 1968 by exploitation and arthouse distributor Sigma III Corp. (Closely Watched Trains, Cul-de-sac, and the double bill of The Awful Dr. Orlof and The Horrible Dr. Hichcock) and in the UK in 1969 by Contemporary Films, The Party and the Guests may have been "banned forever" but it did not go unseen through the years, receiving digital releases in both countries with the film included in Criterion's Eclipse DVD boxed set Pearls of the Czech New Wave (sharing a disc with Daisies) while Second Run first put the film out on DVD in the UK in 2007. Second Run's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen Blu-ray comes from a new 4K transfer from the Czech National Film Archive from 2021 using the original picture and sound negatives. The HD image is a definite improvement over the SD transfers, displaying superior contrast and shadow detail, only sometimes looking "softer" because the sharpening of the SD transfer is more apparent when viewed on a progressive monitor and upscaled to 1080p. The uptick in detail is apparent not only in the natural surroundings but also the finer patterns of costumes which were either obliterated or noisy in SD.


The LPCM 1.0 mono audio delivers crisp dialogue and the scoring of Karel Mares (who appears in the film as the "old democrat" Karel) while also calling attention to the restrained rendition of ambience through sound effects. Optional English subtitles are free of errors.


Ported over from the 2007 DVD is appreciation by Czechoslovak cinema specialist Peter Hames (12:41) who highlights the essential contributions of Krumbachová, parallels with Luis Buńuel's The Exterminating Angel and Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game – films which Nemec claimed not to have seen at the time – the fragmented nature of the dialogue, the character-specific casting of friends, the perhaps unintentional resemblance of the host to Lenin, President Novotny's reaction to the film (which seems not unlike Rudolph at his most childish), and the banning of the film first in 1966, its 1968 re-release, and its subsequent banning forever.

New to the Blu-ray is a pair of commentary tracks. The first is an audio commentary by author Jonathan Owen who draws parallels between the experiences of Nemec and Vera Chytilová with the Czech censors, Nemec's surrealist influences as well as that of Franz Kafka, and makes clear his own assertion that the film really is a "scathing satire of authoritarian power" in spite of Nemec's claims and the parable nature of Krumbachová's story source and screenplay. He also notes the influence of Renoir's A Day in the Country – including the way images of bucolic purity are undercut by absurdity – and points out the various "banal tributes to nature" in the film's dialogue. Owen provides more detail about the less-than-flattering "personality-based casting" of their friends as representatives of the socialist bourgeoisie (including the description of composer-turned-actor Mares as a "false hero") as well as the "type" casting of the thugs with Nemec asserting that actor Antonin Prazak (Valley of the Bees) described himself as a "political prisoner" but was most likely a juvenile delinquent.

The second is an audio commentary by Projection Booth podcast film historians Mike White, Samm Deighan, and Kat Ellinger who note that banning a film forever in Czechoslovakia was tantamount to erasing it from the historical record as if it had never existed. Deighan and Ellinger note the symbolism of eating and gorging in Czech cinema, and how images of waste, decadence, and frivolity raised the ire of the censors, as well as "pagan wilderness" that encroaches upon the characters in The Party and the Guests, Daisies, and Fruit of Paradise (the latter two written and "designed" by Krumbachová) with the characters of the former too "middle class" to be truly subsumed and transformed by it (as underlined by their bucolic bathing and changing into evening wear, with the hostess repeatedly spraying herself and others with perfume). Although they also cover at length the interpretations of the film as politically subversive versus the seeming intent of Nemec and Krumbachová, they also assert that the two could not have helped but have been influenced by the totalitarian regime in which they were living.

The disc also features the animated horrific and absurd 1965 short film "The Hand [Ruka]" (18:35) by Jiří Trnka.


Housed with the disc is a 24-page booklet featuring Michael Brooke's substantial essay on the film and Jan Němec – we have no idea if it has been revised since the 2007 DVD or if it is four pages longer because of a different layout including the need to resize the booklet for the smaller Blu-ray case – in which he notes that the interpretation of political critique was not confined to the Czech government, with the original title roughly translated as "About Celebrations and Guests" rechristened in the UK as "The Party and the Guests" and the US going further with "A Report on the Party and the Guests". In addition to citing Buńuel – including the yet unfilmed The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, he also likens it to the theatrical absurdist satire of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. Brooke also provides background on the cast and crew, also noting the importance of Krumbachová as well as the even more obscure input of production head Jan Procházka whose endorsement of the film got him expelled from the Communist Party's Central Committee (Procházka's also scripted the equally absurd and subversive The Ear which was banned after the Velvet Revolution, although it is now available on Blu-ray from ).


Slight but rich in pathways (and vertiginous spirals) of interpretation, Jan Nemec's The Party and the Guests immediately caused a stir, provoking suspicions of covert criticism of authoritarianism which are admittedly easy to read into a scenario so deliberately absurd, nay surreal.


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