An eerie film with an extremely odd production history, Adrift was a Czech-U.S. co-production filmed in the former Czechoslovakia, with Jan Kadar once again co-directing with longtime collaborator Elmar Klos. In terms of international acclaim, the two had peaked with their Oscar-winning film The Shop on Main Street [M] (1965), followed up with Obzalovany (1965), and in 1968 moved on to Adrift, the second film version of Lajos Zilahy’s creepy tale Something is in the Water / Valamit visz a víz, which the author himself adapted and co-directed in 1944 with Gusztáv Oláh.
Filming began in 1968 but was put on pause when the Soviets invaded the country, and yet Kadar returned to Czechoslovakia in 1970 to finish the film before hopping back to North America, where he had established a solo career. Adrift was eventually released in 1971 / 1972, and pretty much vanished from sight.
Story-wise, Adrift is fairly simple - fisherman Yanos (Rade Markovic) saves a woman from drowning, while the health of his ailing wife Zuzka (Milena Dravic) seems to degenerate – yet Kadar’s editing quickly reveals the story being presented is merely a section from a broader narrative where Yanos’ placid, if not dull, life is overturned by a temptress straight from a James M. Cain novel.
Anada (American Playboy model Paula Pritchett) isn’t proactive in her quiet villainy; she lives in a separate (and better-furnished cabin), does her chores to earn her keep, and remains a guest member of the family, but her demureness brings out hidden desires by Yanos and his wife which causes them to stray from marital fidelity, pushing husband to potentially murder Zuzka and claim Anada for himself.
Kadar also reorders events to create a fractured, hacked-up timeline. Specific shots and sometimes oblique scenes are later revealed to be part of the broader story, but a large chunk of material unfolds through a flashback structure that may or may not be a dream: after what seems to be a failed attempt to save Anada from drowning, Yanos wakes up on a beach, and wanders to a campfire surrounded by soldiers on furlough. The men question the integrity of Yanos’ recollections, and force him to address half-truths, white lies, and hidden desires, as the soldiers seem to know his past as well as his future.
When morning finally comes, the soldiers have vanished, and Yanos returns to his riverside home, but Kadar doesn’t give the audience any closure; the film’s finale may not fully answer key questions, but it is stylistically in line with the director’s fractured editing style.
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What makes Adrift so compelling is the weird aura in which something horrendous is just on the horizon; sometimes we’re given a payoff or another new twist is introduced, notably Yanos’ hunger increasing for Anada. Kadar films Yanos and Zuzka’s love scenes with intense docu-styled close-ups, and carries over the trippy visuals when he copulates with Anada. His hunger for both women blurs his allegiance to Zuzka, but his situation becomes more surreal when his wife shows an interest in Anada.
Rather than direct the inevitable confrontation scene with raging verbiage, violence, or assault, Kadar has Yanos discovering Anada’s insidious behaviour when he enters the kitchen and finds the two sitting in the dark, with almost self-satisfying smiles. There’s an eerie glee in their eyes, and Kadar punctuates the scene with some technical experimentalism: filming a physical encounter in slow-motion, and having Yanos watch the two women in a dressing tableau where the camera is locked down, and the women’s actions are fractured by deliberately discontinuous lighting and set decoration.
Not unlike Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), Adrift may be a perfect puzzle film (albeit without a massive twist finale), but it’s also a perfect marriage between experimental film, film noir, and Czech New Wave. It’s dramatically sound because the characters aren’t stark genre archetypes nor stick figures in an experimental mobile. Kadar makes sure Anada’s early scenes show her as a quiet yet functional soul, and perhaps the characters’ most vital scenes occur around the dinner table, where class issues and conflicts erupt over the type of food being served, and how it’s eaten.
The story’s location is equally striking: Yanos lives in a kind of Floridian bayou, traversing through dark canals from his brutally rustic stilt house. The family’s remoteness mandates everyone pitches in to ensure the unit’s survival (as when Zuzka falls ills). Juxtaposed with actual location are scene obviously shot in a studio with painted backdrops (the campfire scenes) and rear projection (such as an eerie midnight fishing sequence between Yanos and the town’s rich playboy) which are either part of the reshoots to finish the film, or Kadar’s desire to further stylize the film’s look.
The use of music in Adrift is particularly bizarre, as Zdenek Liska’s ’s compositions often go against the traditional grain of nourish scenes. A waltz piece recurs and seems to mock the grimness of specific scenes, if not the destruction of Yanos’ authority. There’s also a mystical main theme, and an absurd, mocking piece that consistently challenges the audience’s attempts to take the film’s characters as sincere, or pawns in an elaborate genre hybrid.
Like Shop on Main Street, characters tread a fine line between absurdism and intense drama, and there's a surreal water-borne funeral procession which adds to the film's dream-like atmosphere. It's a remarkable little film deserving a Criterion treatment on home video, yet its distribution at present seems to be restricted to airings on Czech and / or Slovakian TV.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan