Movie Review: The Wolf from Royal Vineyard Street

Famous Czech director has a last hurrah with a semi-autobiographical film

The Wolf from Royal Vineyard Street
(Vlk z Královských Vinohrad)
Directed by Jan Němec
With Jiří Mádl, Lucia Gajdošík, David Bowles, Táňa Pauhofová, Jiří Bartoška, Martin Pechlát, Karel Roden, Ted Otis

The Czech New Wave of the 1960s came to an abrupt end in 1968, but the filmmakers lived on, some in exile and some continuing to work in Czechoslovakia. Jan Němec was known as the bad boy of the New Wave, and his final film finds him back in fine form breaking all of cinema's rules to create a not-exactly autobiography. Němec passed away March 18, 2016, before the film was completed and it was finished according to his desires as much as possible.

Němec, in a publicity statement, said that he felt like he was Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio in one person and his film was a similar story to The Wolf of Wall Street, as it was tale about “an evil-minded egomaniac lustful for fame, money and mainly power.” The similarities between the films, though are not very apparent. He later says the wolf in the title is a “wild, tricky and uncontrollable creature.” He added it was “a wolf in lamb's skin and the other way around.”

Royal Vineyard Street is actually Vinohradská, a main street in one of Prague's better residential areas. It was home to Němec for much of his life. Němec, though, does not appear as himself. Actor Jiří Mádl plays a film director called John Jan, the film's version of Němec, and Karel Roden is the narrator and the director's alter ego. The narrator appears on screen from time to time for no apparent reason. The relatively short film clocks in at 75 minutes, and uses clips from some of his other recent works to fill in some gaps.

Nothing about the film is conventional. In re-creating of the 1960s, which takes us to the Cannes Film Festival among other places, there is no attempt to make a direct copy of what things looked like. It is not just due to the limited budget. Němec presents a schematic idea of the time, a mixed up memory. Later, in a scene where the director has an important meeting trying to get a visa for his passport, the camera zooms out and shows that the room is a just a quickly made film set propped up by wooden supports ans surrounded by lights and cables in the middle of a warehouse. The revelation serves no narrative purpose, it just reinforces the idea that the story is a cinematic fantasy of the director's life.

Some cinematic jokes are thrown in, and part of the Cannes festival scene parodies work by French director Jean-Luc Godard, who in the film and in real life abruptly called for an end of the 1968 festival, sabotaging John Jan / Jan Němec's plan to win the top prize with A Report on the Party and the Guests.

A topical scene, and one that is sure to elicit laughter, is when John Jan attempts to meet Donald Trump to get some possible financing for a film. The Donald does not come off very well in the story. The film was completed long before Trump's nomination as US presidential candidate.

During John Jan's exile in the US, he does have a hard time finding any work in cinema but he pioneers the idea of wedding videos, as portable cameras were a novelty at the time. Some wedding work is integrated into the movie as well.

One does not have to be a fan of Jan Němec or know much about his life and film to appreciate The Wolf from Royal Vineyard Street. It works as bizarre piece of cinematic anarchy that is neither a documentary nor a work of fiction. But fans of Němec wildly diverse career will likely get much more out of this last cinematic tantrum by someone who refused to play by the rules. Some of the most outrageous incidents in the film, such as the director eating his boarding pass when confronted by police, are the parts most likely to be true.

There is no point comparing The Wolf from Royal Vineyard Street to other cinematic biographies or autobiographies, or indeed to anything else that ever was made or will be made. It cannot be categorized as a good film that suffers from a low budget, or as a solid concept that was executed with too many flaws, though many critics might say those things.

The film exists to celebrate low budgets, flawed films and flawed people. It exists to celebrate filmmakers who never gave up or sold out, people who stayed resolutely on their own chosen path to the very end.

Němec was already in trouble with authorities by the time of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion, which he filmed. Much of the film clips used in documentaries about the event come from footage he shot for his short called Oratorio for Prague. He was forced into exile in 1974, going to West Germany, the US, the UK and Sweden. Among his awards are the Medal of Merit, which he received in 2002 from then-president Václav Havel, and the Czech Lion Award in 2005.The Czech Lions are the local equivalents of the Oscars. He won a Crystal Globe for lifetime achievement at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in 2006.

He is best-known for his films Diamonds of the Night (2004) and A Report on the Party and the Guests (1965). He had a comeback in 1990 with In the Light of the King's Love, followed in 1996 by Code Name: Ruby. He turned to autobiographical material for the experimental film Late Night Talks with Mother (2001).

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