The Very Late Afternoon of a Faun brought this month’s Vera Chytilová BFI season to a close. Co-scripted with Ester Krumbachová it was also the last to be made by this avant-garde tandem of female Czech directors.
As is typical with Chytilová’s films, we once again enter the domain of elusive gender games, revolving around the assumed hunter-victim relationship between a man and a woman – and, indeed, leading to the ultimate ambiguity of gender identity. So who, you might wonder, is the Faun of the title? A horned (and horny) Mephistopheles of a man? Or perhaps a mythical male nymph pasturing his female flock in a wondrous erotic netherworld? Karel Faun, the protagonist of The Very Late Afternoon, is a bit of both – or so he thinks. Middle-aged, leathery, out of shape and ever so faintly attractive he’s claimed by the local pensioners as one of their own. Yet his fantasies belong to a much younger man, and Karel gives us a hilarious tragic-comic mismatch: a caricature of a fertility god who’s all too late to sow the spring around him.
Faun’s bachelor life at the dawn of his macho years sounds too good to be true: an antiques-stuffed apartment in the heart of Prague, an intoxicating stream of countless young lovers and a prestigious job (with an all-female staff, as expected). The women of the film alternate in a delirious morph of lips, hips and bodies. Flashbacks of their erotic presence mark the outlines of Karel’s studio and these memories encourage his relentless drive for more. An ultimate seducer, his daily routine’s entirely subordinated to his erotic fantasies. It seems that without the trophy of a female body his day cannot feel complete. His comically insatiable desire puts him on a non-stop libidinous hunt for attractive, and invariably younger, girls. But as his age is revealed, Karel’s restless pursuit becomes the sad delusion of a man long past his prime.
As the film progresses it becomes all too apparent that the young girls Faun is after aren’t the passive victims of Pan’s lecherous labyrinth. Bored, curious or otherwise adventurous, they ridicule the Faun in this comic speculation on age and gender. Too out of breath to keep up with his date, Karel eventually brings himself to the top of the stairs, his miniature of a romantic Olympus, but even here he’s unequipped to seduce. As he points out dreamily (though still out of breath) the Gothic beauty of Prague’s rooftops and cathedrals from this bird’s eye view platform above the city, the girl he’s with remains blasé and bored: it’s nothing she’s not seen before. The valuable antique furniture of his apartment also does him few favours, another girl mocking its painful corners and coffin-like shapes, hinting perhaps that’s where he himself belongs. Painfully perhaps for a sympathetic and pitying audience, the attributes that would on paper make Karel romantic, with his attention, flowers, music, are a century or so out of date, disintegrating against the strength of youthful ignorance.
Unlike films that indulge in ego-boosting scenarios involving one man’s desire for a garland of easily seduced women, The Late Afternoon is not made by men. The dreamy blur of Karel Faun’s sexual experiences is not that of a Casanova (much as he would like to think so) but a mocking étude made by two sarcastic women, ridiculing the alleged hegemony of male desire and the passivity of the female. As Faun stumbles over in the fading autumnal park in a drunken haze of confused attachments, he wonders: what does this park remind him of? The undeniable rotting and decay under his feet should surely hint at finitude, an autumn of one’s years. Not so for Karel. It’s the youthful walks with autumn leaves he remembers in his ever-deluded misreading of life’s hints. The libidinal marathon he pursues is so out of synch with reality that Karel’s phallic faunism, while ultimately eerie, is also a caricature. Faun is way too late for hunting, and though the women might appear interested and friends may envy him, the times have changed, not just for Karel Faun but for gender politics in general – and Chytilová and Krumbachová let every woman in the film prove it.
The Very Late Afternoon of a Faun was part of the Věra Chytilová festival at the BFI Southbank (1st-17th March 2015). The Festival was coorganised by the Czech Centre, London.