by Allan Fish
(Yugoslavia 1970 80m) not on DVD
A tale of two slippers
d Branko Plesa w Dragoslav Mihailovic, Branko Plesa novel Dragoslav Mihailovic ph Aleksandr Petkovic ed Bojana Subota art Miodrag Hadzic
Dragana Kalaba (Milica Sandic), Blanko Plesa (counsellor), Ljerka Drazenovic (Aunt Jelena), Danilo Stojkovic (Poocim Sandic), Lilijana Kontic (Djurdjica), Vladimir Pevec (Peca),
We all know the final freeze frame of Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups; Jean-Pierre Léaud looking not so much at the camera as beyond it, to a free future. It’s one of the most iconic closing shots in movie history. Take another 13 or 14 year old child, this time a girl, with blonde hair, tiny freckles and blue eyes. She’s seen in colour, not in black and white, and this ending has the opposite effect. Where Antoine Doinel ran away from the equivalent of borstal to the freedom of the sea, this girl, Milica, is being taken from the freedom of the coast to the confinement of, in her own words, “a prison for children.”
In actual fact there was nothing much liberating about the beach for Milica. The times we see her there it’s in a flashback, just her and her infant little brother playing with a ball on the beach. Or else she’s running around, screeching, chased by her aunt, like a headless chicken with no sense of direction. It’s a scene that acts as a metaphor for her whole existence. She’s never had a sense of direction. She lives at home with a brutish father who beats her and a mother who seems to spend her days in bed in her negligee, slapping Milica for not attending school. The reason she doesn’t is that she feels equally unloved there, and has to bunk off regularly to do laundry, spied on by her idiot savant best friend, Peca. She’s also caught stealing and had up in front of counsellors. The only one in her family who does have any time for her is her aunt, but she’s a whore and has to pay for her board and can’t have a teenage girl staying when she brings home clients.
The dialogue, adapted from his own book by Dragoslav Mihailovic, contains various throw-away lines that sum up Milica’s existence. “What shall we do with you?”, a teacher bemoans; Milica just shrugs her shoulders. She’s an outsider looking in, at the girls in her class who have decent parents, with toys in their rooms, even at the various shops she steals things from seemingly at random. At times, it feels like a dream inside Milica’s head, but it’s noticeable that when she’s running around playing with Peca, the nervous laughter betrays a girl screaming for attention, nervous that if she doesn’t at least even pretend to be enjoying herself she’ll cop another beating. In one pivotal scene she’s taken for a drive and talk with her counsellor – don’t even think about the safeguarding issues that would cause today – and she confesses to dreaming of going to America and making good. Not because she wants to make good as such, but because then she can buy a red cabriolet and a puppy and come back and say to those who abused, ignored and belittled her that she’s made it.
As with many Yugoslav films of the day, the visual palette seems bleached, film stock that’s been left in the sun a little too long. It certainly adds to the sense of bleak hopelessness of Milica’s existence. As does the rundown neighbourhood she populates, dominated by a coal heap which she at one point considers getting buried in. But note also Plesa’s symbolic use of rigid desk formations, first isolating Milica in the classroom and later in her juvenile hearing. By this time, she’s had all hope knocked out of her, she’s quite possibly given herself sexually to poor simple Peca as a parting gift, as if it’s the last time she’ll see him, and accepted her fate. It’s here that we see her, in that final shot, staring at the camera, not so much accusingly as saying “so be it.”
Still largely unseen in the west, Lilika now seems a link from Les Quatre Cents Coups to Kedzierzawska’s Crows and, beyond, to Sam Morton’s The Unloved. It may be a little unpolished, but it carries all the power of a punch to the gut, superbly directed by actor Plesa in his directorial debut and, in the heart-breaking Dragana Kalaba, it has a face that should be as well-known as any child in film.