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Virginity

Original title: Panenství

D: Otakar Vávra / 82m

Cast: Lída Baarová, Ladislav Bohác, Zdenek Stepánek, Jaroslav Prucha, Adina Mandlová, Bozena Sustrová, Bedřich Veverka, Jaroslava Skorkovská, Frantisek Kreuzmann

Hana (Baarová) lives with her parents (Skorkovská, Kreuzmann) and helps out in their grocery store. Her mother is hard-working while her father is a drunkard. One day, he tries to kiss Hana; her mother walks in on them and sees what’s happening, but instead of berating her husband, she tells Hana to get out. Luckily, Hana finds work at a café run by Josef Nevostrý (Stepánek). He’s attracted to her and finds ways to promote her; this causes some animosity amongst the other female staff but otherwise she gets on well with everybody. One day she meets a regular customer called Paul (Bohác), a composer; there’s an instant attraction between the two of them.

Soon, Hana comes to the attention of another regular customer, the Counsel (Prucha). An old man, he entices her with gifts, first a ring, which Hana accepts, and then a bracelet. But her relationship with Paul has grown stronger, and Hana refuses the Counsel’s offer of the bracelet. Undeterred, he tells Hana she can collect it from his apartment at any time. Meanwhile, Paul, who is sick, is determined to finish his latest classical work, but the effort takes too much of a toll. He becomes too ill, and is advised that he should spend time recuperating in the mountains. However, the cost of such a trip is expensive, and not even his doctor (Veverka) can afford to lend him the money to go.

Fearing that Paul will get worse, or even die, Hana goes to the Counsel’s apartment, but she can’t go through with her plan to allow the old man to seduce her and then get the money she needs for Paul. There is a scuffle and the old man suffers a stroke. Hana flees the building. Later, Paul comes to the café and tells Hana that his doctor has lent him the money to go to the mountains. Knowing this to be untrue, Hana makes a fateful decision: to marry Nevostrý and use the dowry to pay for Paul’s trip…

Virginity - scene

Adapted from the novel by Czech writer Marie Majerová (and with a screenplay co-written by her, Frantisek Cáp, A.J. Urban and the director), Virginity is a sombre yet engrossing tale of one woman’s refusal to be used, or taken advantage of, by the predatory men that surround her. Thanks to a great performance by Baarová, and sympathetic direction by Vávra, the movie avoids any sense that it’s an early soap opera by making each of the characters more fully rounded than usual, and by doing its best not to appear predictable – which it is for the most part (though not when it matters).

By making Hana a young woman whose awareness of the world, and what goes on in it, makes her less naïve than usual also makes for an interesting central character who seems to side-step problems with ease, but who doesn’t quite have the complete confidence that should come with that ability. Some things, like her successive promotions at the café, orchestrated by her quietly lovesick boss, she takes quick and decisive advantage of while remaining oblivious to his attentions. Even though her female colleagues are less than enamoured of her rise through the ranks, Hana’s mix of sincerity and good intentions stops her from being disliked, and there’s a strong sense of the female solidarity that keeps all the women from being exploited, either at work or in their love lives. With the female characters refusing to be objectified, or to let the men around them feel they can be bought with trinkets, the movie has a proto-feminist feel that few movies of the Thirties – wherever they were made – can boast.

Issues of feminism aside, it’s the seedy backdrop that draws the attention. The Counsel is an old-style lecher, leering and manipulative, his intentions as clear as if he’d written them on the café window. Prucha plays him as a sly old fox, certain of his “charm” and even more certain that his gifts will bring him what he wants. Despite his soft-spoken manner and patrician bearing, he’s the worst type of predator: the one who knows his ploy will work… in time. In contrast, Nevostrý is motivated by passion and love, but his own attentions toward Hana are equally as disturbing as the Counsel’s. His approach is to reward her and make her grateful to him, to make her feel obliged when he finally reveals his feelings for her (though his scheme is undermined by Hana’s need for the dowry). It’s a clever conceit, that the man who professes love for Hana is the most conniving in pursuing her.

As her true love, however, Bohác’s agonised composer is a less than desirable mate, his wild stares and manic grinning proving too distracting from the moment he appears. (In truth his portrayal is reminiscent of any Twenties performance by Conrad Veldt, and distractingly so.) It’s to Baarovás credit that she makes Hana’s love for Paul so convincing, her early infatuation played with such sweet earnestness that the viewer is swept along by the budding romance in the same way the character is. As Paul’s condition worsens, Baarová shows Hana’s fear and apprehension with such a degree of sympathy that when she makes the journey to the Counsel’s apartment and begins to have second thoughts as she climbs the stairs, it’s the most dramatic moment in the movie. And when she is preparing to be married to Nevostrý, with her workmates fussing around her, the look on her face tells you all you need to know about how Hana is feeling at that moment. It’s an impressive performance, and all the more so for the risqué – for 1937 – scene where Hana expresses her frustration at being parted from Paul: she stands in front of a mirror in her room and runs her hands down over her breasts, her arousal so plainly written in her features that it’s almost embarrassing to watch. (Interesting Historical Footnote: when she made this movie Baarová was living in Berlin, and was the mistress of Josef Goebbels. Yes, that Josef Goebbels.)

Director Vávra does a fine job of keeping things from becoming too sensational, or mawkish, and handles the social and sexual politics of the time and the story with understated finesse. He draws out fine performances from his cast – Bohác aside – and gets to the heart of a scene with a minimum of fuss or any attempt to draw attention to himself as the director. As a result, the movie has a fresh, unhurried feel to it that makes it entirely believable from start to finish.

Rating: 8/10 – a minor classic from Czechoslovakia that boasts a handful of terrific performances and clever direction, Virginity never lets it characters – or the audience – down; Baarová is a pleasure to watch, so good in the role of Hana that this is one of those occasions where it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

NOTE: No trailer available.

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