Happy End [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Second Run
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (21st May 2024).
The Film

Butcher Bedrich Frydrych (The Cremator's Vladimír Mensík) is born, thirty-odd years later he becomes a butcher and meets his wife Julia (The Joke's Jaroslava Obermaierová), they have a child, she meets her lover in dandy Ptácek (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders' Josef Abrhám), Bedrich throws him out a window, stabs his wife and cuts up her body, is arrested, tried, and executed. All of this happens linearly in Oldrich Lipský's Happy End, but it does so in reverse with morbidly- and hilariously-perverse censorship-baiting juxtapositions of word and image.

A few spoilers from at least the first half of the film depicting the latter half of Bedrich's life are necessary to give a sense of this: Bedrich is born when this head rolls back up the chopping block onto his body, upon taking his first breath a priest tells him that he will soon meet his maker to which he expresses disgust before smoking his first cigarette, he learns to walk and sit up straight at seminary (prison) with other potential future great men (criminals), he graduates (his trial), acquires the pieces to assemble his wife – reattaching her severed limbs, torso, and head and undoing her death by stabbing – I guess the knife become a wedding present – but their courtship is disturbed when Ptácek comes crashing through the window up from the street below. In his narration, Bedrich is surprised that his wife can be so shallow and immoral as to carry on with a man who steals food from animals at the zoo (throwing fish to the seals in reverse) while he gives life to animals (butchery in reverse).

His narration depicts the tentative flirtations between his wife and lover as the fizzling of the flames of passion; as such, she seems happy as anyone else when Bedrich kills the man in public by dragging him into the sea (rescuing the then-total stranger from drowning). After losing their child (who grows smaller until she is unborn, disappearing behind a curtain at the hospital), Bedrich senses his wife growing distant and, despite a divorce ceremony (the wedding in reverse), he cannot shake her so he endeavors to get rid of her – instead of repeatedly rescuing the chronically-depressed woman from suicide attempts, he puts her back into them only for her to work her way back out of them – until the only way he can get rid of her is to take into his apartment his first love (The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians's Helena Ruzicková) as opposed to tossing out the loyal, rotund, matronly woman (introduced, incidentally, assembling a mannequin in a dressmaker's window).

Either way you tell the story, happy endings appear to only be achievable after enduring miserable beginnings as the film starts with Bedrich's execution and then he proceeds to undo his various mistakes with seemingly no more hindsight than as it seems just as "natural" to make them as to undo them. Running the story forward probably would likely instead have elicited a viewer response of "what's good for the goose…" Told in linear forward order, on the other hand, Bedrich is still miserable at the start and his happy ending is short-lived; however, the combination of the reverse order and the forward narration have the surprise of revealing Bedrich as an awful person already rather than a hapless man who committed a crime of passion. With the happy ending achieved – and the narration equating prison life with his seminary childhood – Bedrich and director Lipský are free to elide the first (or last) thirty years of his life.

While in subsequent years there have been other films with the gimmick of telling a story in reverse chronological order, there are few that actually utilize reverse-motion for more than a few visual gags. Lipský and cinematographer Vladimír Novotný (The Shop on the High Street) utilize the technique consistently throughout the film for a series of sustain plans-séquences of dialogue and choreographed movement well before the invention of motion control camera rigs. The scoring of Vlastimil Hála (I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen) and the post-dubbing greatly aid the effect. The undoing of Julia's murder by running the stabbing, choking, struggling, and scuffling is scored like a tango, looks like an Apache Dance, and feels almost balletic run in reverse while both Bedrich's scuffle with Ptácek and Julia's attempt to hide her lover look a mix of silent slapstick comedy and the sort of physical comedy-oriented filmed segments of The Benny Hill Show.

Some of the funniest moments, however, are the simplest, and indeed the latter half of the film largely dispenses with the more ambitious trickery. It is hard to tell just how much dialogue is actually spoken in reverse to fit the dubbing – or if the actors are just mouthing approximations a la Fellini – but some dialogue is indeed played in reverse when the protagonist's mind wanders or glosses over things. It is also apparent that while Lipský and co-writer Milos Macourek (Visitors from the Arkana Galaxy) get a lot of comic mileage out of conversations in reverse order, they do have to occasionally cheat with exchanges to move the story "forward" but it is never ruinous to the effect and probably sounds no less "natural" than the flow of the rest of the dialogue to viewers in a less-analytical mode. Running just over seventy minutes, the film feels quite dense due to the audio-visual overload, and perhaps the best way to enjoy it is to let it flow as not only this reviewer but the participants in the disc extras tie themselves up in mental knots attempting to explain it when more pleasure could be derived watching someone else experience it.


Although apparently given a theatrical release in the United States in 1968, Happy End slipped into relative obscurity in terms of western exposure – more than one commentator on the disc notes the tendency of Czech and international critics to look down upon Czech comedy, no matter how arty and avant-garde this one is – compared to Lipský's Lemonade Joe by way of the novelty of being a Czech western. While a number of Czech and Slovak DVDs of titles from this period have been surprisingly English-friendly, Happy End was not one of them, although the DVD transfer supplanted the TV recording source on the bootleg circuit. Second Run's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen Blu-ray is sourced from a "new 4K restoration created by the Czech National Film Archive." The sepia-toned image retains a good level of detail in close-ups and medium shots given the "vintage" look, and resolution is such that the severed body parts and head of Julia are frightfully grisly even though they are mannequin pieces, and close-ups fair best in terms of detail (the better to appreciate the nuances of Mensík's physical performance overshadowed as it is by his narration and the overall dubbing). Grain coarsens during the opticals, but even that reality of filmmaking could be seen as adding to the overall artifice of the storytelling as the severed head of our protagonist visually comes into being during the credits before waking and the transition from the credits optical overlay to the first scene may disguise the switching from Mensík's head to the prop one being held by the executioner.


The Czech LPCM 2.0 mono track has also been cleaned up as part of the restoration. All of the dialogue is post-dubbed, as are the sound effects, so they remain as distinct from one another as the scoring. Optional English subtitles are provided, and they do helpfully note when dialogue is actually spoken in reverse and not supposed to be intelligible for those who cannot tell the difference between Slavic words and gibberish.


The film is accompanied by an audio commentary by the Projection Booth film historians Mike White, Kat Ellinger and Ben Buckingham in which they entertainingly try to explain the film, Lipský's technique, puzzle it out, and relate some of their scuttled expectations about the path of the film based on the setup, describing the de-escalation of events in reverse order and motion as the "deflation of catharsis" and suggesting that the approach demonstrates that one can force a pattern of narrative cause and effect on action. They also discuss lead actor Mensík as well as Lipský's reputation as a comedy director, and how he has often been dismissed even by fellow critics and scholars of Czech cinema, as well as providing some details about his other, less available films.

The disc also includes a video essay by film critic and Program Director of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival Cerise Howard (32:44) who came to know the film while writing a piece for Senses of Cinema on Eastern European westerns and decided to look at Lipský's films on either side of Lemonade Joe, as well as how the film informed a piece she was also writing on Bride of Frankenstein with the assembly of the wife from dead parts, as well as pondering the question of whether one can spoil a film that begins with the protagonist's death. She also discusses Lipský's lesser-known filmography as a filmmaker from the generation before the Czech New Wave.


Housed with disc is a booklet featuring a new essay by writer and commentator Jonathan Owen who reveals that after the domestic and international success of Lemonade Joe, Lipský had intended to move into international filmmaking with a widescreen, color serious science fiction film as an Italian co-production. When that fell through, he and screenwriter Milos Macourek (Tomorrow I'll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea) made Happy End which was more ambitious in conception than scale. He also reveals that in most scenes, the dialogue was spoken regularly and only the actors' gestures done in reverse while scenes with less dialogue were done normally and mechanically-reversed (like the most ambitious long take sequences). He also reveals that international critics – apart from Vincent Canby – were kinder to the film than domestic ones, one of whom described it as a "'intolerably drawn-out' joke." He also discusses the use of reverse motion and backwards chronology, a political reading of the narrative, and surrealist themes that demonstrate Lipský to have been just as or more so experimental than the members of the Czech New Wave.


A simple story shown from the end with narration told from the beginning, it may be more pleasurable to watch Happy End's effect on other viewers than to try to explain it to them (or even to oneself).


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