Jiri Menzel’s Capricious Summer reminds me a lot of Eric Rohmer. It’s about calmly restrained passions and unattainable young love. The actors play it pretty sparsely, and Menzel, like Rohmer, keeps a mellow pace, despite any internal frenzy of the characters.
I really know Menzel from Closely Watched Trains (1966), and then as an actor in The Cremator (Herz, 1969); Capricious Summer has a lot of the same feeling as Closely Watched Trains: the humor is dry and never played for a punchline, and the locations are few and isolated to the point that the intention feels like some kind of a microcosm or metaphor.
Antonin (Rudolf Hrusinsky) runs a small swimming bath, where he and his friends pass the summer insouciantly drinking and swimming. When Ernie the conjurer (played by Menzel) comes to town Antonin falls hard for the young assistant Anna (Jana Preissova), despite her possible relationship with Ernie.
A lot of Menzel’s technique is simple, but hits some really nice compositional notes. Here’s the first time that Antonin sees Anna. He and his friends sit at the makeshift event. That’s him center-frame and in the white suit:
Anna comes out, mysterious and masked:
Menzel’s next few shots are really smart. He first just cuts in to a closer two-shot of Antonin and Major Hugo (Vlastimil Brodsky):
But the next shot is great and odd. It’s essentially a close-up on Antonin, but there’s awkward headroom above him. Major Hugo is still in the shot, but he’s strangely cut off across the middle of his face:
It’s pretty alternative framing. The traditional routes would either be to return to that 2-shot, or just to go to a tighter, more conventional close-up on Antonin. The result of Menzel’s decision is really three-fold: it makes it obvious that Antonin is the one initially most infatuated with Anna; it keeps Hugo in the “game,” so to speak, hinting at his later inclusion in a love quadrangle; and the awkward headroom makes Antonin not quite as dominant as he would otherwise be. It’s beautiful use of what seems like a simple shot.
Towards the end of the film, Anna has to temporarily take over for the magician when he’s injured. Much of this sequence is shot in shot-reverse as Anna fails to mesmerize the crowd, but certainly keeps Antonin’s rapt attention:
It’s prettily shot, including this dreamlike, frank image:
But the final reverse to Antonin is the key. It obviously recalls the first time he saw her in that the framing is again atypical. Here, it’s incredibly lonely and sad:
Antonin is a small chiaroscuro spot in the dark. His countenance and demeanor reflect that unattainable object of desire. The night doesn’t so much as swallow him as spit him out away from its own darkness.