Věra Chytilová’s 1969 film The Fruit of Paradise (Ovoce stromu rajských jíme) is a Czech avant-garde interpretation of the Biblical Expulsion from Eden. Chytilová in her cinematic experiment – which raised a political storm on its release and gained her a cult following – puts female desire at the centre of a modern tryst between Adam, Eve and the serpent. The scene is set using a collage of heavily textured images, raising expectations of an up-to-date interpretation of the Old Testament tale, but this is no straightforward allegory of the Fall of Man.
From the beginning, and throughout the film, Chytilová takes you down a series of dead ends, forcing you to retrace your steps and question your understanding of the story. The director’s vanguardist approach is to experiment with abstract imagery, a subversion of narrative and an unexpected pairing of characters, all of which distort a familiar tale and keep an audience on its toes. Eva, our Eve, is married to Josef, representing Adam – until along comes Robert, the interloping deceiver who sparks Eva’s curiosity.
While Josef gets the odd look in, the film revolves around the tango between Eva and Robert, and it’s with these two characters Chytilová continues to play her game of wrongfooting the audience. While Jitka Novákova plays Eva as a living doll with girly gestures and dress-sense, belying a strong will and not-so-innocent curiosity, Jan Schmidt’s Robert, if well turned out, is more Benny Hill character than sleek Machiavellian (though in spite of his bumbling and even slapstick image he’s had a string of female conquests). This casting against type is perhaps Chytilova’s most subversive stroke, a trait carried through in her choice of actors in more peripheral roles, suggesting that female desire knows no bounds, whatever the age, body shape or dress size of the woman feeling it: as a scene in which a septuagenarian succumbs to the flattery of the much younger Robert proves.
The film replaces various symbolic elements in the Adam and Eve story with modern metaphorical equivalents, some obvious, others more obscure. The proverbial apple becomes a red briefcase – that contemporary access to knowledge – and there are also the recurring motifs of a peacock-cry, the colour red and Eva’s wearing of a rose, all of which might be open to different interpretations. Chytilová’s dramatisation seems to borrow straight from the stage and under her direction dialogue is clipped and disjointed. Yet the key to this film lies not in its dialogue but its creative cinematography, subverted symbolism and twisted narrative.
Zdenek Liska’s music, some of which incorporates various sounds from the wild, is noteworthy too. His experimental score playfully – if idiosyncratically – sets the scene and raises audience- expectations, but is at times slightly distracting. More interesting is his use of Czech operatic music to tell the Biblical story underscoring Chytilová’s and Ester Krumbachová’s screenplay. The music, along with various other elements – format and narrative of the film particularly – may not be easy to get to grips with, but these are all aspects of the avant-garde challenge the film lays down for us. And in spite of these things Chytilová’s message is clear: female identity, intuition and sexuality are significant and cannot be ignored.
The Fruit of Paradise is part of the Věra Chytilová festival at the BFI Southbank (1st-17th March 2015), and will screen on 11th & 15th March. The Festival is coorganised by the Czech Centre, London.