MUBI is exclusively showing Tomáš Weinreb & Petr Kazda's I, Olga (2016) from November 18 - December 17, 2016 in the United Kingdom.
Sitting in limbo somewhere on an editor’s desktop is a piece that I wrote about Robert Greene’s recent Kate Plays Christine, which I had thought of giving the title Kate Plays Christine Plays Itself; “plays” being in the colloquial, slang-ish sense of the word meaning, sort of: “betrays.” A film about Christine Chubbuck, the late Floridian newscaster who, in the 1970s, blew her brains out on live television, it opens with a reading from her teenage diary citing her interest in being a wife and mother. She never was. She was also never taken seriously in her male-dominated workplace and, in her own words, took issue with the content of modern-day TV news, i.e. with its sexed-up violence. “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color,” she famously said before the gunshot, “you are going to see another first — attempted suicide.”
As David Foster Wallace’s widow once said of his suicide: “It was just a day in his life, and a day in mine.” I have never read anything sadder. Maybe the suicide broadcast was nothing more politicized than a day in Chubbuck’s life. Still: virginity and a lack of male love seemed inadequate reasons to pin it on. Why give female pain such a pale, insipid primary source? I railed. I railed because I recognized a little of myself in Christine’s sad and thwarted ambition. Keeping its violence out of Techncolor and in black and white, the new Czech drama I, Olga offers its titular character if not mercy, then at least agency. There is no redeeming mass-murderess Olga as a feminist heroine; equally, there is no reason to tamp down the truth of a difficult life. On the 10th of July in 1973—a year and five days before Christine Chubbuck committed suicide—Olga Hepnarová, a 22-year-old woman from Czechoslovakia, drove a truck into 25 citizens waiting for a tram in Prague, and left 8 of them dead, 12 injured. She had previously attempted suicide herself. A letter that she had posted to two Czech newspapers shortly before the murder read: “I am a loner. A destroyed woman. A woman destroyed by people... I have a choice — to kill myself or to kill others. I choose TO PAY BACK MY HATERS. It would be too easy to leave this world as an unknown suicide victim. Society is too indifferent, rightly so. My verdict is: I, Olga Hepnarová, the victim of your bestiality, sentence you to death.” In a circa-Trump world, the use of “haters” in a death-threat is even more chilling.
Hepnarová ended her life by hanging, as the final victim of the Czechoslovakian death penalty. I suppose my use of “victim” betrays my feelings about capital punishment. This dramatized film of her life by the Czech directors Tomáš Weinreb and Petr Kazda is glacial but not uncompassionate. It is cool, effectively, without being coolly indifferent. Michalina Olszanska, as Hepnarová, looks hip and kittenish and has a fantastic haircut; but this was the 70s, when everybody—to my eyes, at least—looked fantastic. Likewise, if it can be faulted for aestheticizing the notion of violence, one might also fault—I don’t know, Michael Bay? Quentin Tarantino? Or, fuck it, Pasolini? Near the outset of the film, it’s discussed that Olga took an overdose of 10 Meprobamate pills, this being the suicide attempt I mentioned—the excuse she gives is that she “wanted to taste it,” a thing which is only “nonsense,” as the nurse suggests, if the “it” in question is Meprobamate. I would assume “it” meant death; or, if not death, then freedom, or actual action. “To commit suicide, my child,” her mother unfeelingly tells her, “you need a strong will: something you don’t have. Accept it.” Her mother does, apparently, think she’s strong enough to be thrown into an asylum. The institution looks at first like some teen heavy-petting Lesbos, where no men exist and the girls all love, with a giggle, each other; Olga approaches a girl at the window, smoking, who asks her, in a maybe-winkingly translated subtitle, “wanna fag?’” Later, though, they drag her into the shower and beat her. She is cuckoo first and girl second, as pale and incongruous at a family dinner as a literal ghoul. “I haven’t spoken to my father since he beat me last autumn,” she writes to her doctor. “Recently, I beat my sister over some petty matter.” Violence, the subtext implies, begets violence.
Alienation begets it, too. “Olga, why don’t you read more cheerful books?” The question, posed by a male nurse, made me remember a time when my partner glanced over my shoulder at what I was typing and asked, gently: “why can’t it ever be anything nice?” Male questions, both! The book she’s reading is The Quiet American. For the first 70 minutes, this film might have the title The Quiet Czechoslovakian. Hepnarová barely utters a word. Other characters tell her so. Like a writer, Olga is always scribbling notes; like a writer, too, she says thing like: “"I sit and sometimes don't say a word all day. I treat people with scorn,” and: “I am happy when I’m alone." A scene where she sits outside with a group of other young, chattering Czechs by a bonfire did not have subtitles. I don’t know if this was intentional; I do know that it seemed apropos, as Olga’s alienation from everyone else young and carefree and happy began to feel, by this point, like being forced to be blind, deaf or dumb to the actual, literal fact of human liveliness.
In a disco scene, she has no chat-up line more chatty than saying “white wine,” but still ends up baring her small, modish Saint Laurent breasts for another gay girl, then another. In black and white films, as in modeling, slim, white, longhaired girls look interchangeable. Olga interchanges them. She lives alone in what she describes as a “hut,” and uses the rain to rinse her laundry. This is no kind of life, and her trysts are no real kind of love, though the directors of I, Olga understand that the trouble goes far beyond her poverty or lovelessness. “I know I’m a psycho,” she deadpans directly into the camera, “but I’m an enlightened psycho.” “Parents,” she coolly tells a middle-aged man complaining about his childhood, “should be executed, and their children put into institutions.” Hers is the great kind of psychic pain, in other words, that a boyfriend or girlfriend or baby won’t salve. When her doctor asks her whether she values herself, she says nothing at all. This is, for Olga, not unusual. What’s unusual is the micro-suggestion of pain in her eyes: hurt as lightning-flash.
Anybody looking for the key to whether Olga does or doesn’t value herself might look beyond even her suicide ideation, and into the fact that at several points, characters mention her smell. Her clothes are grimy; her car smells dirty; her sandwich spread tastes somehow off and rotten. There is a pervasive stink that comes from real depression: one that bleeds from a lack of self-care. It spreads out like a crash scene’s oil-stain, or, I suppose, like an injury’s blood. “The smell of suffering,” says the titular femme in Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s novel of female betrayal, La femme de Gilles, “always disgusts others.” By the time Hepnarová’s crime had been rendered onscreen, describing its carnage here felt too much like fueling an already raging fire.