We Have Never Been Modern (Úsvit) – Review

We Have Never Been Modern It can be slightly unnerving when a film character decides to stare deeply into the eyes of their audience. We don’t usually anticipate being made complicit in whatever is unfolding on screen. And yet, that is exactly how director Matěj Chlupáček chooses to open his second feature film – the tear filled eyes of his lead character, gazing down upon her audience as she struggles to raise her lips into a smile. It’s a bold choice in a film full of them.

We Have Never Been Modern (Úsvit, in the film’s native language) takes its name from a text by the philosopher Bruno Latour. But whilst the overall themes of the film might seem deeply philosophical in their ponderings, the issues are presented in a way that is very contemporary and digestible. Set in 1937, pre-war Czechoslovakia is obsessed with one very specific type of progress. That is, using its verdant countryside to create new villages and towns, bolstered by factories and medical clinics and a general sense of expansion fuelled by honest labour and bright minds.

At the centre of this is Helena (Eliska Krenková), wife of Director Alois (Miroslav König). She is heavily pregnant – just five days out from her due date as the film begins – and already bored with the “new” Czechoslovak society. With her medical training and genuine interest in people, sewing circles and petty local squabbles do not interest her. When the body of a dead baby is found in amongst some sand destined for building work, it doesn’t sit well with Helena that it is the subject of a massive cover up; pinned on some local Communists. More than this, the baby obviously has both male and female sex organs, piquing her curiosity beyond what is acceptable for society at the time.

This is a film that feels like it comprises two halves. The first is the thrilling, tension laden detective like caper as Helena tries to establish what really happened to the dead infant. To do so, she must skirt around the ever-watchful eye of two counter-espionage goons who have set up camp in her house. The second is an emotionally impactful family drama, as the truth behind the corpse comes to light. Both of these are wrapped up in themes of identity, belonging and progression, all of which are realised through some striking visual choices.

Some of the wide shots of the newly developing town of Svit look like something straight out of a Wes Anderson movie, with their dusky red bricks, yellow tinged roads and duck egg blue skies. But make no mistake, there is nothing whimsical or light-hearted about this film. In fact, it’s perhaps only halfway through the film that you’ll notice the subtle ticking that runs throughout the soundtrack, raising your heart rate and having you hold your breath. The hand-held camera work often gives the impression that Helena is being watched or, in some instances, drifting in and out of consciousness.

We Have Never Been Modern Eliska Krenková gives a compelling central performance as Helena, a woman often dismissed as tired or hormonal as she refuses to swallow wild theories of subterfuge and sabotage. She is a naturally curious and outspoken woman, and this seems like a dangerous time and place to be so. Her husband often makes panicked apologies for her “sense of humour”. And whilst she battles everyday sexism, her interest in the intersex baby pushes yet another boundary that 1930s Czechoslovak society is not ready for. Discussions about gender identity, sexual organs and sexuality are generally met with scathing ignorance or frantic shushing. The strive for modernity only applies to new factories and men with more power, it seems.

Czechoslovakia, itself, is presented as a country looking to forge a new identity. And this new identity does not welcome all. It is one that is full of the oft-touted progress but is clearly in the grip of a few men who, at their core, are traditionalist capitalists. Alois – despite starting the film full of love and affection for his wife – is just another careerist who cares about appearances and perception.

This is a film that very much lives in spaces “in between”. Male and female; accepted and outcast; knowledge and ignorance; progress and lack of. Religion, politics and social “norms” all play their part in the fear and gossip surrounding the dead baby. Another key theme is that of “ordinariness”. In the heat of a fight, Alois dismisses his wife as “ordinary”, an insult that seems to cut her to the core. Helena clearly thinks of herself as “not like” the other women she finds herself socialising with. Her identity is rooted in her brilliance and defiance, not her averageness. In contrast to this, the character of Saša (Richard Langdon) would do anything to be seen as “ordinary” because that would mean acceptance.

We Have Never Been Modern (Úsvit) is an emotionally charged watch that explores themes and characters that are entirely relevant to contemporary cinema viewers. With gorgeous visuals and brilliant performances, this is definitely one to watch.

We Have Never Been Modern (Úsvit) is now screening at the Glasgow Film Festival as part of the Czech, Please! strand. Get your tickets here.

Mary Munoz
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