The cinematic concept of telling a story in reverse order might seem like a creative rejection of the traditional chronological narrative but it is nothing new. Polish filmmaker Jean Epstein experimented with this approach as early as 1927 with the avant-garde short The Three-Sided Mirror (La Glace a trois faces) but in recent years we have seen numerous examples of the reverse narrative in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and two films by Christopher Nolan, Memento (2000) and Tenet (2020). Betrayal (1983), the brilliant screen adaptation of Harold Pinter’s 1978 play, is probably my favorite example of the backward narrative in terms of its cumulative emotional power but Happy End (1967) by Czech filmmaker Oldrich Lipsky might be the funniest and most visually inventive example of this novel gimmick.
For one thing, Happy End is almost slavishly faithful to the reverse narrative formula with not just the story beginning at the end but also all of the physical action depicted in the film is also played backwards. In other words, plates of food are reconstructed from the mouths of the eaters, horses and cars race in reverse and funerals become rebirths for the recently deceased. Even some of the dialogue in Happy End is played backwards but, for the most part, the protagonist, a small town butcher named Bedrich Frydrych (Vladimir Mensik) narrates his life from his final moment to his birth with a completely new perspective and no memory of his past.
If Happy End had been told in a routine chronological order, the resulting film could have been a grim, depressing melodrama of an insignificant working class peasant driven to murder his wife and her lover in a jealous rage. Play the tale backwards in a nostalgic sepia tone with a bright, upbeat music score (by Vlastimil Hala) plus the general absurdity of seeing everything in reverse and the film becomes an amusing black comedy.
The screenplay by director Lipsky and Milos Macourek has a lot of fun with Bedrich’s point of view which expresses the wide-eyed astonishment of a child in most matters from a visit to the zoo where seals throw fish to the visitors or the consummation of his marriage to his wife Julie (Jaroslava Obermaierova). “It wasn’t easy to return her virginity,” he notes after their lovemaking concludes.
The most memorable set pieces in Happy End are Bedrich’s resurrection from the guillotine where his head is reconnected to his body and he comes to life and the double murders of Julie (hit with a hatchet and dismembered in the bathtub) and her lover Birdie (Josef Abrham), who is thrown out the bedroom window at a great height. It might sound grisly but the reverse mutilation of Julie is not depicted in realistic terms. We can clearly see the body parts are those of a mannequin but as Bedrich works to reassemble his wife it takes on the hypnotic allure of a magic act. “I felt like God, a creator,” he confesses as Julie once again becomes a living, breathing entity.
I think the idea of watching everything in reverse could quickly become a tedious one trick pony but Happy End never overstays its welcome, thanks to a briskly edited running time of 70 minutes. For me, the film conjures up those early memories of watching 8mm home movies with my parents, who would then run the footage backwards in the projector to make us laugh. There is something intrinsically funny and surreal about witnessing physical actions like eating, painting or fishing in reverse. And Happy End becomes a celebration of life in the way it transforms routine rituals and mishaps into extraordinary events such as a nightclub stripper’s act, a rescue from a burning building, a car accident and a wedding party.
In the title role of Bedrich, Vladimir Mensik projects the perfect mixture of confusion and delight at everything that happens to him. The Czech actor was amazingly prolific – over 225 film and TV credits! – and was quite active during the peak years of the Czech New Wave with memorable roles in Vojtech Jasny’s delightful fantasy When the Cat Comes aka Cassandra Cat (1963), Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde (1965), Vaclav Vorlicek’s sci-fi comedy Who Wants to Kill Jessie? (1966) and Jiri Weiss’s satire Murder Czech Style (1966).
Oldrich Lipsky is not one of the better-known directors who were usually associated with the Czech New Wave; those would be Milos Forman, Ivan Passer, Vera Chytilova, Jan Nemec, Jiri Menzel and Juraj Herz. Lipsky did enjoy some international recognition for Lemonade Joe (1964), a musical western that poked fun at the “singing cowboy” movies of the 30s with stars like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Surprisingly enough, the film was nominated for the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Unlike many of his contemporaries like Milos Forman, Lipsky did not indulge in biting social satires or political parables. Instead he turned out light, frothy comedies and farces which were often witty and stylish and popular with Czech audiences.
One of his first movies to receive U.S. distribution was Man in Outer Space aka The Man from the First Century (Muz z prvniho stoleti, 1962), a sci-fi parody with lots of fun, futuristic sight gags and inspired art direction by Jan Zazvorka.
Other popular successes include Adele Has Not Had Supper Yet aka Dinner for Adele (Adela jeste nevecerela, 1978), a whimsical detective farce in which famous sleuth Nick Carter takes on a carnivorous plant, and The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (Tajemstvi hradu v Karpatech, 1981), a homage to gothic cinema and movies like 1932’s The Old Dark House. Based on what I have seen of Lipsky’s work, Happy End is still my personal favorite and one that holds up well on repeated viewings. It is a deft merging of autobiography with black comedy and unfolds like some macabre cartoon…but, in reverse, of course.
Happy End is not currently available on any format in the U.S. and is unlikely to end up as a Criterion Collection candidate due to its relative obscurity. Interested readers may be able to find a decent DVD-R of it from European Trash Cinema.
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