Thursday, August 3, 2017

I, OLGA HEPNAROVA



"I know I'm a psycho, but an enlightened one." That's the main character speaking in I, Olga Hepnarova, an offering from the Czech Republic about an alienated young woman who, when she had been bullied long enough, drove her truck onto a sidewalk in Prague and killed eight people, mowing them down like bowling pins. Her deed was a kind of political statement, a warning to society that if the victimization of defenseless people continued, there would be a lot more vans driving onto sidewalks. The victims of bullying, she claimed, could only take so much before they struck back. She also believed that society raised a certain amount of people to be victims, and that had to stop, too. I'm no expert on Olga, and though the credits say "Based on a true story," I can't vouch for the movie's accuracy. But it's an interesting portrait of a young woman's journey into madness, a woman who, by outward appearances, seemed relatively normal before turning herself into an instrument of terror.

We can see Olga's outlook warping from the beginning of the movie. When she tries to commit suicide by overdosing, she's told she doesn't have the guts to carry out such a thing. Later, when she tries to pursue a romance with another girl, she's told that she has no sense of fashion and smells odd. "I seem to be a lesbian," she tells a counselor. "I'd like a partner. Can you help me find one?" She's told, without irony, that her medical benefits don't cover such things. We also see her being beaten savagely in a reformatory shower by a bunch of other girls, and though she seems competent at her truck driving job, she soon loses that, too. Alienated from her family, Olga makes do by reading dark literature and having quick sex romps. Apparently Prague was crawling with lesbians in 1973, because Olga has no trouble finding pretty young women to sleep with. In fact, there's a rather lengthy cunnilingus scene that betrays Olga's description of herself as "sexually crippled."

The real Olga Hepnarova was a stocky, plain girl. Here, as played by  Michalina Olszanska, she's whippet thin and rather attractive. Olszanska affects a mannish, slope shouldered walk which grows more pronounced as the movie progresses, but most often is seen sitting still, staring vacantly into some unknown abyss. We hear her inner thoughts as she pens letters and notebook entries, all of which depict her as antisocial and self-pitying. "All parents should be executed," she says at one point. "And children put in institutions." She's a less rabid version of Valerie Solanas, the man-hating loon who shot Andy Warhol. The story is rolled out in a series of blackout scenes, many of them with only minimal dialog, shot in a rigid black and white by Adam Sikora, all the better to sense a sociopath's icy interior. Even the climactic truck ride is done in a matter of fact nature. It's all over in a few seconds. 

The movie has earned many awards on the international festival circuit, including several for Olszanska's performance. It may be a bit aloof and artsy for American viewers, but it has much to admire. I particularly liked how Olga seems so sure of herself prior to being sent to prison, and then, alone in her cell, comes undone. A court psychologist suggested she was schizophrenic, and sure enough we see her disintegrating as she awaits her execution, delivering a long, incoherent monologue about her innocence. Was she really starting to crack? Or was she merely pretending to be insane to hold off a trip to the gallows?  The movie also seems a bit mannered at times, with Olszanska shrugging around like a slacker goddess. It's as if the filmmakers want us to think of Olga as a kind of cool, misunderstood rebel character, a socialist republic version of Wynona Ryder. The fact that the broken bodies on the sidewalk are barely acknowledged is odd, too, as if the crime of running people down with a truck was  incidental to this poor girl's story. Such obtuse choices only muddy  the filmmakers' point.  Fortunately, Olga's  screams as she's being dragged to the hangman's noose are loud and clear and quite direct.




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