'3 Seasons in Hell' is a confounding, seemingly contradictory film; more than keen to espouse the naive idealism of its protagonist, yet also cautious of the excess of bohemia and the inevitability of living in post-war Czechoslovkia, it in fact materialises as a rare politically-charged film that is balanced yet outrageous all at once. Depicting the young life of Czech poet Ivan Heinz (Krystof Hadek), the film traces his burgeoning stature as a poet in 1947, where he is the toast of the small artistic community, to his romantic entanglement with a rebellious girl born from bourgeois cloth named Jana (Karolina Gruszka), to his inevitable run-in with the Communist state, who see his and his colleague's subversive literature as dangerous. '3 Seasons in Hell' offers plenty of loftiness to go around - we envision a fleeting moment involving a shop assistant re-configured through Ivan's peculiar thoughts - but director Tomas Masin, while initially seeming to advocate Ivan's showy, self-satisfied behaviour, peppers the film with enough sympathetic faces on the other side of the fence to even things out. Ivan's father, for one, disapproves of his son's Marxist stance, yet he is not painted as the fist-slamming, stodgy old conservative that one would typically expect. In fact, the film does a good job of painting Ivan like a fool; early on he sets himself on fire as an artistic means of expression, but ultimately it makes him seem little more than a drunken moron. In the interest of fairness, we can hear several people applaud and at least one person condemn his childish behaviour. With his excess of feeling, Ivan is almost instantly reminiscent of Goethe's classically overwrought character Werther; he finds an extravagant emotion in everything, even suggesting that sewage being poured into a well is a moving representation of something beautiful that has been broken down into constituent waste. Though there is obviously a post-war context to the character and setting, this is circumscribed almost entirely in the film's first half, in favour of a baffling - though also enticing and erotically shot - romance plot, as Ivan begins a sordid affair with Jana, submitting to each of her strange whims, sexual or otherwise. Most interesting about this relationship dynamic is how Jana withholds their first sexual encounter from him for such a long time, claiming that he will sublimate the sexual frustration into an ultimate artistic expression. To fuel this further, she pretends to have sex with other men in a rather sick, and also rather amusing manner. Compounding the frustration, Ivan also has to deal with the authorities clamping down on artistic freedoms. The film is at its best when conceding its own floweriness and not taking the artistic bent too seriously. A hilarious scene in a restaurant is the film's best; Jana subverts table manners by ordering a smoked penis and a boiled telephone, while Ivan shouts obscenities and begins to strip off. In taking itself less seriously with the point that the character is trying to make (in usurping the boring, buttoned-down bourgeois existence), viewers are likely to be more receptive to it. Likewise, as Ivan intentionally skews all manner of psych evaluations put before him for his own amusement, it is more engaging precisely because it aims not to lecture but to entertain. The film's third (and weakest) act involves Ivan and Jana trying to score enough cash by smuggling contraband so they can make it to Paris. Dramatic hurdles inevitably arise, though in these more predictable moments, the character of Ivan's father keeps things emotionally fluid; he is an amazingly compassionate and sympathetic man to his blabbering idiot of a son, who probably doesn't deserve such a welcoming dad. In this final portion, however, the resolution feels rushed and overly convenient, for a vital character is given little screen time and seems to appear only when it is pertinent in order to service the plot. The very end, however, thankfully still manages to resound; with more decades of Communist rule to go, the only resolution possible is that these poets have had their time, and for now, that time is over. There are no big moments at the close, commendably leaving things in flux, and though a grand polemical monologue closing things out is expected, we get a better, simpler, still eloquent reconcilliation of not only the protagonist's fate, but the fate of art at that time. '3 Seasons in Hell' is a minor period work with its share of flaws - the pacing is not great, and it is an unapologetic chamber piece - but as a look at artistic opression (better than any other historical aspiration the film has), it is effective enough. '3 Seasons in Hell' premieres at the London Film Festival tonight night, with additional screenings on Saturday October 16th and Sunday October 24th.
Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.