The Cassandra Cat [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Second Run
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (24th May 2023).
The Film

Palme d'Or: Vojtech Jasný (nominee) and Special Jury Prize: Vojtech Jasný (winner) - Cannes Film Festival, 1963

"Once upon a time, this really happened…," so says castellan Oliva (The Fabulous Baron Munchausen's Jan Werich) who shows up to model for a children's drawing class and regales them and their teacher Robert (Jacob the Liar's Vlastimil Brodský) with one of his stories as a sailor when he joined a traveling circus in his attraction to beautiful tightrope walker Diana who had a performing cat that always wore glasses. He was warned not to remove the glasses as the gaze of the cat would reveal the true colors of the audience. Oliva was unable to resist temptation and the audience whose shameful natures were exposed killed the cat and Oliva forever lost Diana. No sooner is Robert castigated by authoritarian headmaster Karel (Tomorrow I'll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea's Jirí Sovák) for stimulating the imaginations of his pupils with unscientific activities – Robert's idea of a civics lesson is to have his students write about things in the town they do not like and would like to see righted – than a circus troupe marches into the town square headed by a ringmaster who bears a striking resemblance to Oliva alongside Diana (Dragon's Return's Emília Vásáryová) and her sunglasses-wearing cat. When Robert's own cat runs after the mysterious feline, he ends up meeting cute with Diana, or so it seems… That night, the town gathers under the big top for a show with puppets and pantomimes that performing scandalous vignettes that seem to be targeted at members of the audience – specifically, averring the infidelity of Karel and his secretary/Robert's girlfriend Julie (Fany's Jirina Bohdalová) – but this time around, Diana pulls off the cat's glasses and literally exposes the true colors of the spectators: violet for liars and hypocrites like Karel's flunky school custodian Skolník (All My Good Countrymen's Vladimír Mensík) and perpetually malingerer Janek (Amadeus' Karel Effa), yellow for the unfaithful like the aformentioned, gray for thieves like the restaurant manager (Lemonade Joe's Jaroslav Mares) who regularly fleeces tourists and suppliers alike, and red for those in love. Physically unable to hide their shame, Karel, Skolnik, Janek, and the restaurant manager bond and form a council to prevent any further "slander" in the public interest, plotting to abduct the cat and set up Robert as the fall guy. The children, however, know how the story goes and stage their own revolt through means of creative expression.

Shot in vivid Technicolor-like hues in anamorphic scope with a four-channel stereo track, The Cassandra Cat may seem a very atypical example of the Czech New Wave – coming just before it – and more so in the filmography of the director of All My Good Countrymen. Looking back as much to Hollywood Technicolor musicals as to Soviet fantasy films of the fifties – as well as a strain of darker Czech fantasy films to come like Valerie and Her Week of Wonders or The Cremator-director Juraj Herz's Beauty and the Beast, The Cassandra Cat beneath the surface not only seems an outgrowth of themes and visual experimenation in director Vojtech Jasný's earlier portmanteau Desire, but also a more indirect and subversive critique of authoritarianism that his more confrontational later work. Castellan Oliva observes from his clock tower perch with equal fond detachment the children – expressing their creativity in mischievous manners like drawing on walls – and the adults like the hopping gossip, cheating lovers, corrupt officials, and the like without any (conscious) desire to bring about a reckoning for the latter. Robert is aligned with the children from the first moment when he refers to Karel's shooting down of a stork (a protected species) as murder, and is then subsequently taken aside by the headmaster and chastised for speaking out against him in public. The town is renowned for its taxidermy and the murdered animal becomes a trophy, only animated by Skolník skipping around the room with the stuffed and mounted piece to the delight of Karel and Julie in complicity and in contrast to Robert and Karel's wife who later remarks to him that they are in the same boat as Karel and Julie comment on the stupidity and meaninglessness of the pantomime that directly targets them. Far from a "grim" fairy tale, the film has the adults seeing their wrongs when their children revolt against them – including Skolník who calls himself a "bootlicker" with disgust – while the only unrepentant authoritarian proves that in a world where your true colors are on display, being a chameleon is the bad thing. The film's surreal scenes find even the most stoic characters pulled into choreographed dance numbers in which their true colors are on display are executed through a combination of make-up, gel lighting, and opticals in a dazzling display of technical virtuosity from cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera – assisted by Miroslav Ondrícek who later photographed Intimate Lighting helmed by this film's assistant director Ivan Passer – who usually achieved more modest surreal effects in other films like Daisies and Morgiana with greater simplicity. Although an outlier in Jasný's filmography – which subsequently divided itself between feature films in Germany and largely television films in his homeland – The Cassandra Cat has in common with his other masterworks of the period a what-if aspect like those works of all other Czech New Wave filmmakers who struggled and suffered in varying degrees with the censorship and blackballing of the repressive Soviet control.


Shown at Cannes and Locarno in 1963 and released in Czechoslovakia the same year, The Cassandra Cat was difficult to see outside of the festival and repertory circuit until a couple Czech DVD releases followed the Národní Filmový Archiv's 2006 theatrical re-release. Mastered from a HD transfer of the new 4K restoration by the Czech National Film Archive, Second Run's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC widescreen Blu-ray is framed at the widest theatrical framing of 2.55:1 – the film was exhibited in a cropped, flat 1.85:1 as well as anamorphic 2.35:1 and 2.55:1 aspect ratios to accommodate various theater screens and projectors – and the image boasts strong colors (particularly the reds which provided some technical challenges during the photography) while detail fares better in close-ups and in interiors for the most part given the Czech archive's method of restoring the 35mm intermediate positive "using the outputs of the NAKI DF13P010VV006 'Methodology of Digitising the National Film Fund in the Czech Republic' project"; as such, square reel change marks remain but any archival damage has been cleaned up.


Although the film was likely screened most widely with a mono track given the technical specs of many smaller theaters of the time, its more prestigious exhibitions were accompanied by a four-channel magnetic stereo mix which as been re-channeled here into a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track but it is pretty front-oriented with little in the way of surround activity, presumably taking into account wider mono exhibition. There are indeed left and right directional effects, starting with the chirping of a bird in a cage to the right of the frame as Oliva and the hopping gossip peak into the window of an unmarried woman and her love. The busier sections of dialogue, effects, and music, however, are anchored towards the center as is most of the dialogue. While not as wildly experimental as some mutli-channel mixes – especially those that predated the standardization of center dialogue, front left and right hard effects, and rear atmosphere-type mixing – it is still an interesting track given the period and how few magnetic tracks survive archiving. The optional English subtitles are free of any obvious errors.


The film is accompanied by a new audio commentary by Projection Booth podcasters Mike White, Spencer Parsons, and Chris Stachiw in which they discuss the fairy tales and films – including this film's original, non-literary take – the film in the context of Jasný's filmography, the actors and the characters they play here (particularly in relation to other popular characters they have played that are either similar or wildly different), themes such as the contrasting malleability or fixity of truth for power – as embodied in the stuffed stork which Karel emphasizes to Robert as a teaching tool versus his more stimulating lessons for the children – the film's influence on "Club Silenzio" sequence of David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. in its revealing of the workings of illusions before they are executed for the audience, and such behind the scenes trivia like the need to source Max Factor make-up from Hollywood for only the red characters.

The disc also includes the 1963 animated short Badly Painted Hen (13:38) directed by The Cassandra Cat co-writer Jirí Brdecka, as well as the feature's theatrical trailer (1:36).


Included in the case is a 23-page booklet with an essay by author Cerise Howard who notes that the two films that "heralded the coming of the Czech New Wave" both involve cats with The Cassandra Cat and the absurdist Josef Kilián (available from Second Run on DVD in the The White Dove & Josef Kilián double feature and a newer HD restoration as a bonus feature on their A Case for a Rookie Hangman Blu-ray), the "jettisoning of the doctrinaire Social Realist strictures," Jasný's filmography, an analysis of the film, its release, and its reception domestically and abroad.


Although an outlier in Jasný's filmography – which subsequently divided itself between feature films in Germany and largely television films in his homeland – The Cassandra Cat has in common with his other masterworks of the period a what-if aspect like those works of all other Czech New Wave filmmakers who struggled and suffered in varying degrees with the censorship and blackballing of the repressive Soviet control.


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