by Allan Fish
(Czechoslovakia 1963 110m) DVD2 (Czech Republic only)
Aka. Az prijde kocour; The Cassandra Cat
Once upon a time there was…more was than wasn’t
p Vojtech Jasny d Vojtech Jasny w Jiri Brdecka, Vojtech Jasny, Jan Werich ph Jaroslav Kucera ed Jan Chaloupek m Svatopluk Havelka art Arch Oldrich Kucera
Jan Werich (Oliva/the magician), Emilia Vásáryová (Diana), Vlastimil Brodsky (Robert), Jiri Sovak (school director), Vladimir Mensik (janitor), Jirina Bohdalová (Julie), Karel Effa (Janek),
Probably the most whimsical of all Czech films, or at least the most whimsical of Czech classics, it’s criminal that Vojtech Jasny’s seminal piece is so hard to see these days. It’s never been available in the UK or in the US on video or DVD, and the only opportunity to see it is via importing the Czech DVD. All I can say is – import it, while you can!
It all begins with an old man – Oliva – up in a clock tower, who begins the tale, or does he rather relate it? In one corner, we have the school headmaster, a dictatorial man whose hobby is blasting away poor animals so he can make a pathetic job of stuffing them for his collection. He also is interested on having a fling with the girlfriend of one of his mild-mannered staff members, a schoolteacher called Robert who is beloved by his 7-8 year old students. One day in his class, Oliva is sitting for an art class for the kids, and tells them the story of how he fell in love, and how it all centred around a lovely young woman – doesn’t it always? – and her cat. Seems this cat wore sunglasses, and more than that, if the glasses were ever removed, people could see everyone else how the cat saw them. And we’re not talking feline night-time vision here, we’re talking looking into the characters’ very souls, their nature and actions. Those who turn yellow are the cowards and the unfaithful, while those who turn grey are thieves and miscreants. Purple is the colour for hypocrites and liars, and red the colour of choice for lovers. So what happens? Well, naturally, no sooner has he told the tale and from out of the window the kids, the teacher and Oliva see another lovely young woman called Diana, dressed in red, carrying a cat, a tabby with spectacles, and accompanying a magician atop a wagon.
It’s a delightful premise, but one reading through of the above synopsis will tell you that it could very easily have been utterly dreadful. There’s a miraculous sense of weightlessness to the enterprise, however, that recalls the whimsy of René Clair, while even the town square becomes a character in the piece in much the same way as it would in Demy’s later The Young Girls of Rochefort, another romantic film with an emphasis on colour. There’s a great deal of symbolism hidden there, too, to entertain the adults if the central premise isn’t enough. Take how the animal shot down in the opening sequence is a stork, and how the stuffed animal becomes important in a story about children. Or the character of the headmaster – wonderfully played by Sovak in a manner reminiscent of old Raymond Huntley – who is, to all intents and purposes, a neo-fascist, a fairy tale villain masquerading as an upright citizen. The teacher, Robert, is a bit of a wet fish, but Vásáryová is simply adorable as the magical Diana, and Werich is wonderful as two infernal old rascals. There’s even a magical magician’s act for the townsfolk which, though it flies over most of their heads, actually critiques the hypocrisy of the populace. Even the drawings of the kids have a wonderful lightness to them that adds to the sense of fun. And then there’s the cat, the real hero of the piece, as soft a furball as you’re ever likely to see, unforgettable in his sunglasses or being carried before the kids without a care in the world and turning people grey, purple, yellow and red in hue. One could write a thesis on the use of colour alone – fans of Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon will herald a kindred spirit – with special mention for the two children obviously already sweethearts and turning red walking hand in hand down the school corridor. That’s it’s all kept on an even keel and pitched at the perfect level is great credit to Jasny, but also hail Kucera, whose widescreen photography is suitably dreamy.