Celebration in the Botanical Garden
Slávnosť v botanickej záhrade
Written by Tereza Havadejová, July 2022.
Celebration in the Botanical Garden (Slávnosť v botanickej záhrade) (1969) by director Elo Havetta has been a great source of inspiration in my personal practice, and possibly for many other Slovak and Czech filmmakers, being one of the most notable, subversive, and impactful films of Slovak cinematography.
With its carnivalesque ambiguity, inventive structure, impressionistic visuals, and playful, yet authentic interpretation of the Slovak identity, this is one of the works I always recommend to anyone interested in diving into Slovak cinema or the Slovak/Czechoslovak New Wave, and the one I keep returning to time and time again myself.
The film begins with the arrival of Pierre in the fictional village of Babindol located somewhere in southern Slovakia, in a sequence resembling and consisting of a clip from the Lumiére brothers' “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat”. With the grainy texture of early film material and steam engine in a low frame rate, the film (and in a sense film as a medium) arrives in the otherwise slightly old-fashioned Slovak countryside, and immediately causes a revolution, just like the Lumiére brothers did during and with their first public film screening in 1895.
The long-awaited wedding between Mária and Pišta, who already share 8 daughters together, is interrupted and broken up by Pierre’s untamed and “barbarian” arrival, and our (the audience's) ordinariness disrupted for the next 83 minutes, and perhaps much longer after.
Pierre, also called “the French man” by the villagers, sets out to show the inhabitants of Babindol a miracle, the beauty of a carefree life. And somehow, being confronted by the image of a train arriving at the station, we are not only invited to witness Pierre's miracle ourselves, but in a way symbolically, the miracle offered by the medium of film as such.
On fourth walls
This brings me to one of the most compelling aspects of this film, which is our position, as the audience, within and towards its meaning. When Pierre organises a celebration in Babindol's botanical garden, in hopes of staging the miracle of turning water into wine, he goes around the village inviting its inhabitants and shouting: “You will be the actors and the audience!” to the onlookers. This perfectly sums up our role within the film as well, our place within the “celebration,” we are not only the audience but the actors as well, observing and actively participating and creating at the same time.
To understand this better, I recommend looking into Mikhail Bakhtin’s definitions of the “Carnivalesque'' and the “Carnival sense of the world” which originated in his writing Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics. Bakhtin describes carnival as something deeply rooted in both the collective and individual human psyche, as well as something that is not a mere spectacle but a powerful and dynamic creative event, where its power lies in the absence of “outside”, of the separation between the participants and the spectators.
This becomes more apparent towards the end of the film, where just as much as the audience becomes an active part of the film, the filmmakers themselves physically appear in the final sequence - the big celebration of the harvest, when Pierre and other citizens of Babindol, dressed up in costumes of saints, perform the great miracle of turning water from a local spring into wine.
Elo Havetta himself stands on a platform with Jozef Šimončič, the film’s cinematographer (seen below to the far left), as if to document this event and the grand, yet chaotic theatrical performance. We see lighting equipment, monitors, and the film crew, while Havetta gives directions to the actors using a megaphone. He calls them by their real names, making us wonder whether we are watching some sort of "behind the scenes" footage and if so then why, or is this passage of the film also scripted? We might never know.
To come back to the carnivalesque character of Celebration in the Botanical Garden, where participants and spectators are one and the same, there is no place or moment more perfect for this intervention than this scene. The final performance, the carnival, where anyone and everyone is invited to participate - so do the primary creators of the film, we are all invited.
This generates an interesting relationship between the audience and the creators of the film, in a way, demystifying the personality of the filmmaker, although we see Havetta in a “godlike” position, looking over and directing from a platform high above the audience and the actors, somehow the chaos that ensues seems to be out of his own hands as well. The carnival becomes a separate entity, an ecosystem out of anyone’s control, but at the same time, existing and flourishing solely under the condition of everyone's presence and participation. Havetta and his crew are there together with us, at the very same moment, and with each time we watch this film. We are creating together and the celebration or the film, or rather its meaning doesn't exist without our attendance and collaboration.
Like in a carnival, the roles are reversed - the characters become the actors in the staging of the miracle, as well as the audience of the performance, yet they are portrayed by actors. The filmmakers not only direct and document the film, but the celebration as well, and in a way they become actors and subjects of their own documentation, and ultimately the cast of their own film. And finally, we are the audience, not only of the film but the celebration, and eventually, the only true creators of the film’s meaning. Fiction turns into reality, and back, all lines get blurred, crossed, intersected and ultimately erased.
The film is the definition of the carnivalesque.
Celebration in the Botanical Garden is, to say the least, layered - in visual embellishments, impressionistic colours and compositions, dramatic and theatrical sequences and characters, animated overlays, references to Slovak culture and folklore, as well as hidden details, meanings, modes of realities, and the numerous ways in which the film manages to engage with the audience.
Like in a lush botanical garden or in a carnival, one might find themselves overwhelmed, overstimulated, perhaps confused, but somehow a part of this kaleidoscopic wilderness, a participant and a co-creator of the spectacle, unable to turn their glance away, and ultimately impacted by whatever is happening in front of their sight.
The story, after one watch, is rather ambiguous, maybe almost nonsensical at times, hard to grasp, understand or digest easily, especially for a more passive viewer. Ironically, the carnivalesque excess, the visual feast, is not as easy of entertainment as it may seem. Or perhaps quite the contrary, it is exactly this chaos and ambiguity, nonsense at times, which might make the film entertaining for some. From my perspective, the beauty of this picture is this freedom to interpret, the subjectivity of its meaning, purely depending on how one chooses to engage with it.
And rather than trying to make sense of it, to look for a logical narrative (which definitely starts to appear more clearly after a few watches), perhaps we can look at the content of the film - the carnivalesque, impressionistic, nonsensical, playful, overwhelming, daring, as the message itself, and thus the simple genius of this work might get uncovered, or as in a carnival - the exuberance and the eccentricity ultimately “unmasked” by the end of the night.
However I want to reiterate that this is a personal observation you may not agree with, and perhaps my own perception might shift with the next watch. But I do think that the charm of this film is that it gives us the ability to become active viewers, a part of the spectacle, to be able to interpret, look for clues, for our own meaning, to make associations, to be invited to the Celebration in the Botanical Garden, to enjoy the chaos of not understanding everything, not being served a meaning, just like in life itself.
Elo Havetta on his approach to the making of Celebration in the Botanical Garden:
“The means we had chosen are those of a naive fresco and pilgrimage clichés, something from the atmosphere of Renoir’s or Chagall’s paintings. Balancing between naivety, banality, sentiment, pathos, and the grotesque, which should communicate the sentiment that the human spirit, regardless of formulas provided by the intellect, is a restless pilgrim in a search for a miracle.” (cited in Macek, 1990, p. 40)
I feel for me, Havetta managed to not only capture the magic of film as a medium, but in a way, as embellished as it may sound, of life itself. This is even more important in the context of its making, 1968/(9), the year of the Soviet occupation in Czechoslovakia, the end of Prague Spring, and the beginning of the period of the so-called “normalisation”, which led to 20 years of censorship and blacklisting of countless creatives (including Havetta), and of the Socialist realist uniformity in art and life in general.
Unlike the majority of pictures made after the occupation, this film searches for the miracle and the magic of everyday life, hidden away (or masked) by “realism” and later by the censorship of “normalisation,” and I dare to say, the search for the miracle is still as relevant and necessary as it was 55 years ago, and it will always be.
Coming back to Bakhtin's “carnivalesque”, isn’t playfulness the essence of human creativity, of freedom, of our identity, and ultimately of progress?
So please accept my invite to the Celebration in the Botanical Garden and give this film a chance. Open up to the chaos, let yourself become a part of the carnival, participate, ask questions, and perhaps the meaning, or the lack of, will eventually be “unmasked” in front of your eyes or beyond.