Even as I attempt to begin this review, I’m still not entirely sure how or where I should start; you see, I saw a movie the other day – “I, Olga Hepnarova” (sometimes titled I, Olga for short), a film of such staggering brilliance and poignancy, that, when it ended, I had to immediately put it right back to the beginning and watch it all over again, without a single moment of hesitation; just once wasn’t enough. Even now, having watched it four times, it still doesn’t feel like enough, I feel withdrawal symptoms unless I’m watching it, I, Olga is a stunning and aesthetically pleasing work of art that ripped my heart from my chest and burst it in its grip; aside from simply being good to look at it also sent my mind whirring at 100 mph, raising questions about society, family, bullying, mental illness and how, when all are combined under some very bad circumstances, they can lead to a very unwell and disturbed individual committing mass murder.
It is the true story of Olga Hepnarova, the last woman to be hanged in Czechoslovakia; a deeply troubled person who, in 1973 when she was just 22 years old, decided to drive a truck into a crowd of innocent people, killing eight and injuring many more. Her reasons being that she was victimized by the whole of society her entire life and that even her own family cared nothing for her, are these things true? The film suggests but doesn’t outright state, perhaps what Olga saw as victimizing and bullying were just the average downsides to society that we all have to put up with from time to time, and being a possible schizophrenic made it all feel malicious from her point of view, who will ever know for certain?
Hepnarova was a complicated person and has been translated into a complex character, thus the film chooses to include as much about her as possible, detailing not just the events before and after her crime but everything from her suicide attempt at 13 and time in a mental hospital to her sexuality and different relationships with women. It’s interesting because the film never falls into the same trap many biopics are prone to when they decide to cover a real individual’s entire life, which is to sacrifice proper story telling technique just so they can cram in as much information as possible, which is also why biopics covering just one large event in the person’s life are generally better received.
The reason I think I, Olga gets away with including so much of its subject’s life is because it all means something, it all revolves around the same point, that she hated society enough to want to punish it by killing people, everything included matters and/or provides clues to her eventual act and if you know it’s coming, the suspense is relentless. Even the subplot concerning her lesbianism and multiple girlfriends points towards it, one scene in particular has Olga sitting down with her female date with her jacket playfully open and one of her breasts exposed, “you’re completely mad” her date jokes, but if you think about it, it’s really rather scary. It’s the first of many acts of non conformity that will soon lead to murder, her clearly being mentally ill also pushes the feelings of dread in the scene that would otherwise be somewhat sweet and funny, but instead comes across as tragic and uncomfortable.
This film doesn’t want to vilify Olga, but it doesn’t want to vilify society either, it doesn’t present her as being a poor little victim who was right to do what she did and neither does it show society as being full of rude psychopaths out to get her, it understands that she was very troubled and disturbed but also that any society, perfect or not, is no place for such a person, whether they’re being bullied or not. Would she have committed the crime if the world had treated her with more compassion? I couldn’t say. Would it have helped if her family were less cold? I’m not sure; the film simply presents you with what it knows to be true (the film’s two directors even proclaiming that if they didn’t 100% know it to be fact, they cut it out) and asks you to be the judge, is she as much a victim as her actual victims, or is she a dark psychopath? Was society cruel and heartless, or was it just as difficult as it’s ever been and simply amplified by her mental state? It wants you to decide, and so does the actress playing Olga – Michalina Olszanska.
This girl is wonderful, she manages to convey a massive spectrum of different emotions even while playing a character who is meant to be disconnected from the world, withdrawn and quiet, there are times I found myself feeling rather sorry for her but others where I was legitimately frightened of her. Everyone involved in making this masterpiece seemed to be on the same page, they aren’t portraying a monster, they’re portraying a person and Michalina did a fantastic job, not just emotionally but also physically, the way she dresses, her boyish walk, her anguish towards the end and a tense lack of trust in those she’s casually interacting with conveyed through her body language; a haunting performance for an equally haunting film.
The rest of the cast do a great job too, Olga’s mother is played by an actress named Klara MelisKova and what impressed me about her performance was that, even though she portrays the character as cold and distant, she never truly comes across as emotionally abusive which really adds to ambiguity of how we’re supposed to feel towards Olga. Olga sent letters detailing her plans and the reasons why to different newspapers just before carrying out the attack; in them, she blamed her family, calling them “good” only in adverted commas, and the film clearly shows that she had a lot of animosity towards them but since the film doesn’t want present her has a complete victim, the family isn’t shown as full on evil, her mother, despite being rather emotionally distant, is shown to at least try to make an effort in some scenes, asking Olga what she would like for her birthday to which Olga simply responds – “to get out of here”.
Now here’s where things start to get a little sensitive, the scene involving the truck, obviously I’m not spoiling anything when I tell you that Olga does eventually get into a truck and drives it into a crowd of people, murdering eight of them, did you also know that the Titanic sinks at the end etc. This scene could not have been handled better, it’s very unglamorous and un-romanticised, there’s no stupid slow-mow or bombastic music, it’s over almost as quickly as it begins and absolutely pays respect to the victims. It’s a very ambitious scene, it has to be 100% respectful as this did unfortunately happen to real people, it needs to be brutal and shocking to drive the impact home and also needs to maintain artistic consistency with the rest of the film, so no pressure, but by pure chance they actually pulled it off.
It’s shot from the perspective of the passenger seat, the sounds are nasty and nauseating, in fact the whole sequence made me feel rather ill, the aftermath is bloody and extremely unpleasant but what really makes it last is Olga’s expression once the deed is done, it makes the possibility of her having schizophrenia seem very likely indeed. The film’s two directors did a magnificent job with this scene, it’s the big moment of the film and if they messed it up it would certainly mean trouble, but they didn’t, and speaking of the directing, holy hell, it’s very important to remember that this is a very arty movie, I imagine not mentioning that would be a mistake, knowing what people are like but I think it’s great, it’s shot in black and white, the camera work is minimalistic and shots don’t move very often but not in a way that’s visually lazy, it’s actually very stylish and deliberate, the pace is slow but never once boring and as a result the whole thing is just an absolute treat to look at and experience.
A lot of people are probably going to be turned off by it’s aesthetical body because, from what I’ve heard, art house movie are not exactly on high demand with general audiences but I love this sort of thing and I do believe that the substance doesn’t suffer. For some reason, films with strong styles always get accused of being style over substance but just because I, Olga is stylish doesn’t mean it’s emotionally flat, I know this to be true because I have been an emotional wreck every time I watched it, style AND substance, there is nothing better. It’s all very appropriate because the bleakness of the visuals matches Olga’s mind set, she is a character who has trained herself to not pay all that much attention to people, unless they prove themselves approachable or she simply wants them in her bed she is completely detached from those who want to make small talk with her and the style goes along with that beautifully.
I don’t know how else to say it, I love this movie so damn much, I need to watch it again and again and again, I, Olga Hepnarova is a powerful, flawlessly made, haunting and fascinating look into an unhealthy mind, it doesn’t answer questions, it raises them and leaves you to think about it. It’s very subtle but the payoff is gargantuan, I still get chills thinking about it, it’s got performances that achieve wonders I thought impossible, especially that of its lead, the style is glorious and very satisfying, it handles subjects like mental illness, depression, companionship and hatred with masterful craftsmanship, it’s respectful to Hepnarova’s victims, remains unbiased and unprejudiced all the way through, it’s deep, poignant, tragic, upsetting, smart, scary, has thematic editing, a brilliant final shot and a tone that just punched me in the stomach despite there not being any music, I couldn’t love it more, may well be my favourite film of the year, could be too early to tell but I highly doubt anything capable of blowing this out of the top spot is gonna turn up any time soon.
I’ll say it again, I love this movie, I love every last frame of this movie, it will stay with me forever and I have not a single problem with it, at all, a grand cinematic masterpiece, now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go watch it again, it’s currently showing on Mubi but not for much longer so don’t miss this one, hope to God it gets a proper DVD release, and an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film wouldn’t go unnoticed, or maybe even a win… please?
Motion Picture Maniac