Monday, May 16, 2016

O Happy Day (1970)

AKA 17 and Anxious, Heiße Teens aus gutem Haus and I desideri morbosi di una sedicenne

Unlike fellow Czech filmmakers such as Věra Chytilová, Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel and Jan Němec, Zbynek Brynych sadly doesn’t seem to be a familiar name to many western aficionados of eastern European cinema. At least in America it seems, however there was a time when that might not have been the case. In 1968 when the Czech New Wave was a big deal and all the aforementioned names amongst several others became ones to drop, Brynych’s holocaust based masterpiece The Fifth Horseman is Fear (1964) made it to the States to glowing reviews. Roger Ebert even called it “a nearly perfect film”. Brynych always had a taste for the unusual and had no qualms about crossing over into genre material as evidenced by his odd Nazi sci-fi thriller I, Justice (1968) and even with its display of holocaust based real world terror, all the expressionist touches found in The Fifth Horseman is Fear do bring with them a feeling of surreality. In 1970, Brynych found himself in West Germany and while there his appreciation for films of an off center nature came to the forefront when he helmed O Happy Day, Angel’s With Burnt Wings (1970) and Femmine carnivore (1970), three of the strangest films to fall under the banner of “Euro cult” with O Happy Day having the distinction of being one of the most bizarre coming of age films ever made.

Favoring randomness over coherent storytelling, O Happy Day is essentially a plotless affair detailing the going’s on in the life of Anna (Anne-Marie Kuster), a 17 year old catholic girls school student. Despite being from a well-off family and having a seemingly good relationship with her boyfriend, Anna is dissatisfied. Like most teens her age Anna is terminally bored, feels her parents don’t understand her, is confused about what she wants out of life, full of raging hormones and just wants to be happy.

On paper it sounds like a relativity simple coming of age teen drama, however Brynych approaches the material in the most berserk manner possible, resulting in a film that’s incomparable to anything else. Anna has a habit of daydreaming as does Brynych and as a result the film has a tendency to drift in and out of fantasy without warning, leading to scenes involving dancing nuns and people cackling like maniacs for no apparent reason (something that would become a staple in Brynych’s other two German films from the same year) with Brynych’s camera going wild with delirious zooms, fish-eye lenses and constant movement to dizzying effect. The film is also overflowing with 70’s psychedelic kitsch by way of its hilariously exaggerated portrayal of hippies, select music choices and fashions on display as well as the interior design of Anna’s room, the surreal posters adorning her wall which come into play rather conveniently during one of Anna’s memorable dreams. As frivolous as the film is, it also has a fair amount of heart as Anna is a very likable and engaging character who’s easy to root for thanks to the presence and gusto performance of Anne-Marie Kuster who clearly enjoys being in front of the camera and really makes the situations Anna is going through seem more than simple and typical “nobody understands” teen nonsense. The moment when Anna spills her guts after her frustration with her parents finally boils over is very emotional and heartfelt with Kuster’s delivery coming across as genuine.

The film gets its namesake “O Happy Day” from the pop/gospel song “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers which is heard repeatedly throughout the film and its use in the final moments of the film is quite hilarious given the context of the scene and Anna’s voiceover narration. Brynych would use a similar tactic for his next film, the equally eccentric Angels With Burnt Wings, taking the title of the film from the Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra song “Angels Who Burn Their Wings” which plays numerous times during the course of the film. The third and final film in Brynych’s German cycle and certainly the most over the top, Femmine carniovre has the distinction of being the only film from Brynych’s German cycle to have a legitimate DVD release having gotten an official Italian release. The Fifth Horseman is Fear was released on DVD from Facets while Transport From Paradise (1962), another one of Brynych’s WWII based Czech films was released on DVD by Second Run in the UK. Both O Happy Day and Angels With Burnt Wings continue to be MIA on DVD and its really a shame because if more attention were paid to these films its more than likely they’d quickly gain a fan base amongst lovers of Euro cult/trash fare. Fans of unclassifiable, offbeat 70’s cinema need to look no further than Brynych and O Happy Day.

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