When the beautiful young Anna joins a busy birth ward in Prague’s hospital, everything seems to go wrong. She drops things and fusses, gets in everyone’s way and can’t perform even mundane tasks like plugging in a device in an operating theatre. The doctors despair in eye-rolling frustration, but the obstetrician, Dr. John, soon sends Anna home to pursue her talents in another field. Little does he know that instead of fleeing the building the clumsy intern will go straight into the maternity ward to play midwife, single-handedly, to a pregnant, unattended patient. Surprisingly Anna succeeds with flying colours and this minor disobedience soon unfurls into a nonchalant power game of mutual desire between man and woman: Dr. Josef John, and Anna Símová. And so The Apple Game – juggling and querying gender-expectations in an acerbic tragi-comedy – begins.
The choice of birth unit as key backdrop is unflinchingly physical. Intimate footage shows babies’ heads emerging and merging with alternating shots of ripe apples; delirious mothers-to-be are shown in close-up on hospital beds; glimpses of Caesareans and hints of abortions have an almost documentary quality. In this unromantic and blood-stained setting womanizer John and the adventurous Anna manage to flirt and tease each other’s sexuality. Caresses and playful cooings at work never seem to lead to a consummated relationship between the two (or is this 1970s Czech censorship at work?) and thus remain a light-hearted and ambiguous game for both the couple and the viewer, at least for the time being. But John is also dating Marta, a colleague’s wife, and when Anna finds out about the deception The Apple Game turns a shade of green.
The kaleidoscope of births and abortions, the ultimate outcome of most physical relationships, sits in absurd proximity to this love triangle throughout. John, a skilful male manipulator of women’s bodies at their most vulnerable, is nonetheless scathing and sceptical about their capabilities. “When I need to do something important, I can only ever do it partially”, Anna declares when failing to help him in a routine trivial task, blatantly hinting at the assumed incompetence of women. Yet Marta, the strongest of all Dr.John’s fleeting passions, seems to blur the borders, refusing to play the conventional woman John expects – concerned for her personal freedom, she flatly refuses to cook dinner for him while interrupting their trysts to dash off and do the shopping for her family. John too, despite his success as a womaniser, is both nerdy and middle-aged, living at home with just his obsessive mother to tend to him, cook for him, and manage the inexplicably numerous affairs of the heart. Thankfully Chytilová’s treatment of this eternal conundrum of the sexes stays away from feminazi attacks on men, as it subtly melts gender away, passing the Eden apple from one player to the other.
The Apple Game is among the most commercially successful of Věra Chytilová’s films – a hit which marked her return from a six-year ban following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. This relatively unknown 70s Czech comedy, screened by the BFI as part of its tribute festival to Chytilová (the director died last year), is a revelation: with its playfulness, unashamed physicality, and deliberately amateurish camera work The Apple Game is reminiscent of nothing so much as the box-office hit Amelie (2001), and the whole atmosphere of the piece is pleasantly familiar. Except that in Chytilová’s avant-garde forerunner it happened almost 30 years earlier – and is, in its raw avoidance of glamour, all the more enchanting.
The Apple Game was part of the Věra Chytilová festival at the BFI Southbank (1st-17th March 2015). The Festival was coorganised by the Czech Centre, London.