Czech That Film Tour 2017: Tiger Theory, by Dayne Linford
I’ve always been a huge fan of the comedic subgenre surrounding the “battle of the sexes” – women and men pitted against each other, usually ending in a tempestuous and hilarious romance. Your standard romantic comedies are a derivation of what Shakespeare perfected, though they never seem to go quite far enough. To work, it must be an actual battle – that is, two equal, individualized forces pitted against each other. There’s more to Beatrice and Benedict than gender, and more to them together than alone. Many, many variations on this theme can be found throughout Western storytelling, of which Radek Bajgar’s Tiger Theory is another, sadly inferior take. Though well-written, often honestly funny, and well-acted throughout, Tiger Theory forgets the most important rule – we must be on both sides at once, or it’s boring.
Following the death of his father-in-law, Jan (Jirí Bartoska) is perturbed when his wife, Olga (Eliska Balzerová) and her mother (Iva Janzurová) decide to ignore the old man’s wishes to be cremated and spread over a nearby river, instead burying him at the local chapel, so he can be next to his wife in the afterlife. It’s that last part especially that Jan finds horrifying, so, determined to escape a similar fate, he decides to fake dementia, doing increasingly crazy things to get himself put in his friend’s mental facility so he can escape. Yes, he does feel this is a better option than divorce. Out on the lam, Jan sends a message to his son and son-in-law to join him in a female-free paradise, nearly collapsing the latter’s marriage as thoroughly as he’s collapsed his own.
Of course, in this film, Jan is totally in the right, though perhaps a little cowardly. The cowardice is justified, though, because all the women in Olga’s family are a pack of conniving, invasive control-freaks who make all the decisions and wield their feminine power with an iron fist. As their daughter, Olinka (Tatiana Vilhelmová) says, “Men have no idea why they are in the world. Our task is to explain it to them.” The set-up, a coward destroying everything in his path in a bid for “freedom”, is pretty funny, but it’s treated with too much credulity, and the delivery routinely fails. The brunt of the humor throughout the film concerns gender cliches and stale jokes, and generally turns on complete sympathy with the benighted men of the family. Ironically, the film generally sidesteps a standby in its genre, being nearly entirely devoid of jokes about sex, a fairly necessary ingredient to a convincing portrayal of what are, at bottom, sexual relationships.
That points towards what stands for subtext in this film – the women are representative of the old Communist regime. Jealous, power-hungry, sexless and ineffective, it’s not a bad comment on life under the thumb, but it generally fails to be insightful, or, more to the point, funny, with the exception of one sequence where Jan accidentally goads his son, Pepík (Jakub Kohák) into releasing a herd of cows over the Czech countryside, since cows deserve a good life, too. This subtext becomes text so thoroughly that, at a moment of pronounced confrontation in Olinka’s marriage, spurred to collapse at Jan’s hands, her husband seizes her face in a room full of police officers, and, squishing her cheeks together, declares that she even has the face of a secret policeman. It’s less funny than troubling, and less interesting than obvious.
Overlong and on-the-nose, not to mention relentlessly sexist, Tiger Theory is a good example of everything that can go wrong with the “battle of the sexes” subgenre. Perhaps it helps to have Shakespeare-esque distance across centuries in avoiding gender politics, but this film is a morass of failing to sort out its own gender context. It’s funny when absurd, but too often relies on tired tropes to deliver the story of a mostly perfect man trying to escape a mostly insufferable woman. It’s too bad, clearly there’s much more that Czech films can offer in critiquing their own gender dynamic. Hopefully someone picks up long before where this left off.