There's a scene in Keeping the Faith, Edward Norton's underrated 2000 comedy, where Norton's young priest, who has fallen for a woman, listens to a piece of advice from the older and wiser Father Havel, wonderfully played by Milos Forman. "I remember I fell in love with this girl in Prague," Forman says wistfully. "She was beautiful. She looked like Carole Lombard. She grabbed me in the alley behind my church, she pressed me against the wall, she kissed me. I was so happy I thought I would die." Forman's Loves of a Blonde (1965), a movie which, along with the subsequent The Fireman's Ball (1967), helped establish him as one of the leaders of the Czech New Wave, is a vivid snapshot of the director's headier days. The setting is mostly in the small industrial town of Zruc, with only a brief stopover in Prague; and his leading lady, Hana Brejchova, resembles not so much Carole Lombard than a young Julie Christie. (Back, of course, when Julie Christie resembled a young Julie Christie.) Yet Loves of a Blonde is an enchanting, heartbreaking autobiographical portrait of a life he experienced and (in 1968, due to the Russian invasion) had to leave behind.
An 85-minute movie that feels even breezier, Loves of a Blonde is divided into three swiftly-paced yet immaculately-detailed sequences. In the first, Andula (Brejchova), a teenage factory worker, and her two friends attend a dance where they are awkwardly pursued by a trio of middle-aged soldiers. In the next, she is lured to the room of scrawny, caddish piano player Milda (Vladimir Pucholt), who teaches Andula how to defend herself against unwanted advances while seducing her with the same techniques. In the last, Andula pays a surprise visit to Milda's home in Prague, leading to a disastrous evening with his parents (the hilarious Josef Sebanek and Milada Jezkova). This impulsive move is uncharacteristic of Andula, who is the last girl who would press a guy against a wall -- not that it matters for Milda's mother, unhappy to play host (it's implied, yet again) for her twit of a son's latest conquest.
Seeing one of Forman's first movies near the end of his career is an odd experience, especially since it's better directed than many of the films that made him famous. Amadeus still holds up as a joyous, mournful masterwork; but One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has aged poorly, looking like a schematic play hustled to the screen. Hair is an ambitious, tin-eared mess; Man on the Moon strains to make a martyr out of a molehill; and even the engrossing, politically-charged The People vs. Larry Flynt is far better performed than staged. (In his review, Charles Taylor declared "there may be no major director with less visual sense" than Forman; adding, "I've seen enough movies shot by Philippe Rousselot to make a pretty fair guess that it's not his fault this one looks like dirty dishwater.")
So it's something of a shock to see how crisp Loves of a Blonde looks, with Forman filling each frame with funny, telling images. A factory manager persuades a military commander to lend his troops a stopover in Zruc because, he explains, the women in town vastly outnumber the men -- a biting social commentary staged before an oversized David Leanish map. At the horrible dance, the ogling soldiers order a bottle of booze to impress Andula and her friends, only to have a waiter serve it to the wrong girls. One of the soldiers, who is married, fumbles with his wedding ring only to chase it across the floor. Andula's visit to Prague climaxes with a drunken Milda forced to share his parents' bed, an Oedipal nightmare as uproarious slapstick. Yet beneath the wit and energy is a layer of melancholy. Oft-accused of misogyny later in his career (so many Nurse Ratcheds appearing as antagonists), Forman exudes nothing but empathy for his main character's lack of options. Which is why Forman's monologue in Norton's movie was a reassuring confirmation that whatever his failings, he took memories of actual Andulas with him.