Plant Smile on Face, Then Await Nazi Invasion: I Served the King of England

There are two things that I especially cannot stand in movies: one of them consists of having men and women establish their sexual friskiness by leaping fully-clothed into a fountain; the other involves smashing every kitchen plate within reach to express bottled-up inner rage. I Served the King of England, Czech filmmaker Jiří Menzel’s return to the cinema after fifteen years of directing theatre, drags both of my pet peeves to the forefront, and then some.

The setting is Europe in the early 1930s; we all know where the time and place are headed, and so we wait and wait, through the supposedly merry frolics of an impish, mischievous, revoltingly amoral clown named Jan Dítě (Ivan Barnev, whose nimble physicality evokes Nureyev, but whose neutered persona and silent movie techniques are straight out of Chaplin). We wait for the Nazis to arrive and put an end to such quirky summer idylls as call girls and their rich, elderly johns pelting one another with cream puffs, squealing with joy, as a rigid, immobile attendant holds aloft a silver tray piled high with an endless supply of pastries for the combatants to grab. Menzel scores this slap-sticky outdoor romp to a jaunty, syncopated piano, much as the fountain leap, with the suits chasing the diaphanous frocks after one of the latter dabs a tablespoon of whipped cream on the nose of one of the former, played out to the strains of tuba and banjo on the soundtrack. The instrumentation reinforces that we are having such a wonderful time—or are we?

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