When Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde had its American premiere at the New York Film Festival in 1966, it was an immediate sensation. Nothing quite as fresh and apparently spontaneous had appeared on the scene since François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows seven years earlier. Bosley Crowther, the chronically stuffy chief critic of The New York Times, flew into uncharacteristic paroxysms of pleasure, describing it as “delightfully simple and sure. It is hopeful—but realistic. And full of delicious characters.”
Usually, when a film achieves instant acceptance, that means there is something wrong with it—that it is too obvious, too sentimental, or too eager to please. None of this is true of Loves of a Blonde, which remains an amazing balancing act of subtle social satire and adolescent romantic longing, of blank despair and irrepressible hope. After repeated viewings, the film begins to betray its somber, dark side, the sense of entrapment and injustice that lies behind its images of young love. And yet repeated viewings do not diminish the charm, sincerity, and gentleness of Milos Forman’s vision; this is certainly one of the most sweetly seductive films ever made, an ironic quality in a film whose main theme is the cruelty of seduction and its costly aftermath.
The film takes place in the provincial Czech town of Zruc, which Forman sketches in with a handful of quick shots: a train station, a housing block, a shoe factory—the latter staffed by dozens of young women, who have been forced to relocate to this gray, remote area by the Communist government. If workers are needed to make a state-imposed quota in the Communist planned economy, workers will be provided, with their consent or without.
Forman does not make a heavy, didactic point of this loss of personal freedom, but the sense of social imprisonment, of individuals sacrificed to the needs of an invisible, unapproachable government, informs every scene of Loves of a Blonde. The film opens with the benign manager of the factory asking army officials to place a regiment in Zruc, as a way of redressing the local imbalance of available males and yearning females. “They need what we needed when we were young,” the manager says to a sympathetic army officer, subliminally evoking the days before World War II and the Communist takeover. If there is one answer to totalitarianism, it is sexuality, an inexhaustible source of pure, anarchic energy.
Loves of a Blonde breaks down into three acts, each of which could stand alone as a short story. Each segment takes place in approximate real time, and each is confined largely to a single setting. In the first section, one of the factory workers, Andula, a young blonde with a wide, sensual mouth and dark, anxious eyes, is induced by two giggly friends to attend the first mixer between the women of the factory and the men of the base. Instead of handsome young soldiers, the girls are disappointed to find a room full of pudgy, middle-aged men, reservists doing their annual duty. In the second, Andula succumbs to the charms of Milda, a young pianist from Prague who has been playing at the dance, and returns with him to his hotel room. The final section finds Andula, some time later, leaving for the capital in search of her lover; she finds the apartment of his squabbling parents, who let her in to await Milda’s return.
Over the course of the three acts, the film’s context evolves from social satire (set in a public space) to emotional intimacy (confined to the private space of a single room and a single bed) to domestic drama (set in the awkward private-public space of a family apartment). The thematic shifts reflect the shifts in setting: the first section is centered on youth and infinite possibility; the second on young adulthood and romantic fulfillment; the third on maturity and inevitable disappointment. For Forman, Milda’s parents—a pushy, overprotective mother and an indifferent father, collapsed in front of the television—represent the young lovers projected into the future, as the romantic idealism of youth gives way to the glum pragmatism of middle age.
Though Forman has fun with his characters’ weaknesses and moral blind spots, he never ridicules or condescends to them. The camera, manned by the gifted Miroslav Ondricek, seems to caress the young lovers, holding them together in snug, intimate frames, focusing on Andula’s pale skin and sad eyes. The film’s low-contrast lighting infuses all of the locations, as inherently grim as they may be, with a sweetly mysterious softness, as if a principle of compassion existed in the world alongside its cruelty.
Loves of a Blonde dances along the thin line between dreams and disillusionment, as sympathetic to its heroine’s aspirations as it is certain that they can never be fully achieved. As Forman’s own work has matured, he has continued to explore this conflict—in the struggle between the young Mozart and the aging Salieri in Amadeus, for example, or between the predatory sexual adventurers of Valmont and their virginal victims. The loves of this blonde are the loves of us all, as essential as they are impossible.
Dave Kehr's film criticism has appeared in many anthologies and publications including the New York Times, Premiere, and Entertainment Weekly. He is also a contributing editor at Film Comment.