The mid-sixties were a time of increased experimentation and political outspokenness for filmmakers in Czechoslovakia, thanks to the increasing relaxation of government censorship that peaked in 1967 with the sweeping reforms of the Prague Spring, and which came to a crashing halt with the Russian invasion the following year. Of the films produced during that brief renaissance, Vaclav Vorlicek’s Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is far from the most radical or subversive. But it is just possible that viewing it would have been enough to convince the CCCP standard bearers back in Moscow that the Czechs were having entirely too much fun for their own good.
Judging by his career, it seems that director Vorlicek’s ambitions may have been on a somewhat more humble scale than those of some of his contemporaries in the Czech New Wave. Unlike directors like Milos Forman and Ivan Passer, who defected to the West following the invasion, Vorlicek remained in Czechoslovakia, where he continued to work for the state-run Studio Barrandov. From that time up to the present, he has become known primarily as a director of family-friendly fantasy films drawn from fairy tales and Czech folklore, one of which, 1973’s Three Wishes for Cinderella, has gone on to become a beloved Christmas time TV staple for generations of children throughout Europe.
That Vorlicek would move on after Jessie to contribute to the long tradition of Eastern European fairy tale films doesn’t really represent any type of shifting of course on his part, since Jessie itself is something of a fairy tale — albeit an “adult” one. Of course, as is usually the case when the word “adult” is slapped in front of something that’s normally meant for kids, the film’s putative adult-ness derives less from any kind of outward sophistication than it does from its inclusion of the kind of mildly “naughty” elements that a wide number of kids — provided they be male and at least puberty-adjacent — would have no problem whatsoever appreciating. In this case, that translates into placing at the center of the action a pneumatic blond with a limited wardrobe of tear-away outfits, a few kinky instances of comic book inspired S&M, and, for Dad, a bit of wish-fulfillment fantasy that sees that blond falling for the charms of a bespectacled, middle-aged nebbish. Factor in Jessie‘s good natured mixture of absurdist humor, low maintenance political allegory, and a populist message about the resilience of dreams and you have a movie that really is fun for the whole family — though one that mercifully replaces all of the annoying treacle and rainbows nonsense typically associated with family films with cheesecake and cartoonish violence. And the best part of it is that, because it’s a Czech film from the 60s, your friends will think you’re sophisticated for watching it.
In its opening moments, Who Wants to Kill Jessie confirms that the axis of henpecked husband and shrewish wife is indeed part of an international language of domestic comedy, doing so via the introduction of its central characters, Henry Beranek (Jiri Sovak) and his wife Rose (Dana Medricka, who we last saw as the interplanetary sociologist Nina in Ikarie XB-1). Henry — bespectacled, middle-aged, nebbishy — works for the government as an engineer, while Rose — mannish, severe, career-driven — serves the state as a scientist. She has just completed work on a serum with the proposed function of removing unpleasant elements from people’s dreams, a boon that, in her estimation, will lead to the creation of a happier, more productive workforce. What Rose has yet to discover, however, is an unexpected side effect of the drug that causes those elements removed from an individual’s dream to then manifest themselves in reality.
Meanwhile, Henry thinks he has found the answer to one of his nagging workplace engineering problems in a weekly comic strip called Who Wants to Kill Jessie. Jessie, the comic’s heroine, is like an Eastern European version of Wonder Woman fitted with the wardrobe of Li’l Abner’s Daisy Mae, across the alpine contours of whose body have doubtless played out the death struggles of many a tiny expanse of over-stressed fabric. Week in and out, the strip chronicles Jessie’s efforts to keep her latest invention, a pair of anti-gravity gloves, out of the hands of a pair of dastardly villains who, in the film’s lone anti-American bitch slap, are portrayed as a gun-slinging cowboy and a thinly disguised version of Superman. When, on occasion, these two no-goods catch up to our generously proportioned girl wonder, it generally ends with her bound, gagged, and baring up to some picturesque light torture at their hands.
While the examples of the Jessie comic strip that we are shown in the film make generous use of Batman‘s “biff”, “bang” and “pow”, what is otherwise depicted in their black-and-white panels is clearly just as much influenced by adult-oriented European comics of the era like Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella and Guido Crepax’s Valentina. In keeping with that similarity, Jessie‘s subsequent flesh-and-blood incarnation of its fictional heroine follows along much the same lines as the later film versions of those two aforementioned comic book sirens. It’s a caricature that’s as elbow-nudgingly knowing as the character herself is clueless — that of the well-intentioned female naïf who stumbles from one erotically charged peril to the next with child-like earnestness, all the while blinded by her innocence to her own pants-straining bodaciousness.
Our first glimpse of the live-action version of Jessie comes to us by way of Henry’s dreams. Convinced that a real world version of Jessie’s anti-gravity gloves may be the solution to his work-based dilemma, Henry devours her comic adventures voraciously, until thoughts of them begin to consume, not only his waking life, but his unconscious one as well. In these dreams he sees himself as Jessie’s savior, intervening to protect her from evil Superman and his cowboy accomplice. Unfortunately for Henry, his habit of murmuring in his sleep has alerted Rose to this subconscious hanky-panky, and she, like any well-equipped scientist of the future, has that machine that allows you to watch a person’s dreams on TV simply by affixing a basic-looking headset to their head while they’re sleeping. Soon Rose is injecting the sleeping Henry with her serum in the hopes of purging his dreams of Jessie’s comic book world, with the predictable — for us — result that Henry wakes up with a pronouncedly three-dimensional version of Jessie sleeping at his side.
Jessie is played by Olga Schoberova, a Czech model and actress who, a couple years previous to Jessie‘s release, had graced the cover, as well as the pages, of Playboy. Schoberova, in addition to appearing in homegrown Czech films, also had a fairly active career in European genre cinema outside the Eastern Bloc. Among other supporting turns, she shared the screen with American stuntman-turned-Euro-action-star Brad Harris on two occasions, first in the 1965 spaghetti western The Black Eagle of Santa Fe and then in the drug-addled 1967 Kommissar X entry Death Trip. Later that year, she and Harris were married, and though the union only lasted a couple of years, they managed to have a child before calling it quits. She would then go on, under the name Olinka Berova, to take the titular role in Hammer’s The Vengeance of She, a move that might have been a stepping stone to greater things had The Vengeance of She proved to be a more auspicious release than it turned out to be.
Schoberova was considered by some to be a sort of Czech equivalent of Bardot, and the comparison is not off the mark. Like that French icon, she exhibited a combination of ethereal beauty and earthy sensuality that made her an ideal choice for the portrayal of an unobtainable fantasy heroine suddenly made flesh. In Jessie, she also exhibits a kind of blankness that may indeed just be blankness, but which also stands in nicely for the kind of childlike innocence required of her character, as well as providing the kind of tabula rasa appropriate to a figure who is essentially just a vessel for the projection of other people’s fantasies. While Schoberova’s mute performance here, with its emphasis on simply running to and fro, may seem like a simple matter, it is the emotionally detached nature of that performance, in its combination with the maddening corporeality of the actress’s physical form, that stands, more than anything else, as the film’s dividing line between fantasy and reality.
Of course, the presence of that form in Henry’s bed (which, as a further signpost of marital dysfunction — as well as cue for us to feel okay about Henry eventually pursuing an affair with a childlike cartoon character — he does not share with Rose) is offset by the fact that, elsewhere in the apartment, are Superman (Juraj Visny) and cowboy guy (Karel Effa). After Rose’s discovery of her serum’s unexpected byproducts, followed by a hapless attempt by both her and Henry to imprison the three “dreams” within the apartment, Jessie, Supes and cowboy, in the course of their ongoing battle, break free, leading to a madcap pursuit through the streets and across the rooftops of 1960s Prague. The chagrined Rose is charged by her angry superiors with the task of exterminating the unruly trio, while Henry, of course, works feverishly to build the anti-gravity gloves that would allow him to defeat Jessie’s super-abled pursuers.
The humor in Who Wants to Kill Jessie, which is plentiful, ranges from the broadly slapstick to the surreally anarchic. Probably the most ingenious of its recurring gags involves the speech balloons that the mute comic book characters use to communicate once thrust into the real world. These are not only visible to the mortals they encounter, but also tactile. In a courtroom scene, the judge asks a bailiff to turn one of the characters’ balloons toward him so that he may read his “testimony”, and, later, Henry exasperatedly pops one of Jessie’s like a bubble when her utterances go off topic. In another instance, Superman tries to curse out a kid who has just peed on his head (just see the movie), only to have the kid reply that he can’t read.
The ability to peer into the dreams of sentient beings, human and otherwise, is also a source of some wonderfully deadpan absurdist comedy. A cow who is plagued by nightmares of swarming flies is shown, after being administered Rose’s serum, to be dreaming of herself swinging gently in a hammock while being serenaded by a string quartet. And don’t even ask how a number of the film’s characters end up getting trapped inside the dream of a sleeping dog.
Henry’s dreams, once set loose in the waking world, turn out to be harder for Rose and her fellow functionaries to get rid of than might be expected (one of her subordinates wonders if they can’t just be “re-educated”), and so a legal remedy is sought. What follows is an episode of surreal courtroom drama in which the legality of holding dreams accountable for their crimes is solemnly debated. Ultimately it’s decided that Henry, as the dreamer of those dreams, is the one who should be made accountable for the destruction caused by them during their reckless tear through the city. Undaunted, Henry continues to work on the formula for the anti-gravity gloves while in prison, and ultimately breaks out to save the day and, yes, get the girl. (In another one of the film’s playful jabs at authority, Henry’s jailbreak involves him turning his prison togs into a uniform via the application of spray paint and a few well-placed thumbtacks.)
Alongside all of its surface froth, Who Wants to Kill Jessie carries a simple political message that’s pretty hard to miss – that authority’s attempts to suppress the dreams of its subjects have a tendency to force those dreams into the world of action, and that, once made manifest, those dreams tend to be a genie that’s pretty hard to get back into the bottle. There is also a statement being made about the importance of fantasy as a precursor to invention and positive change. All of this becomes especially poignant in light of the force that would be brought to bear upon the dreams of the Czech people within just a of couple of years of Jessie‘s release. This knowledge makes it even easier to appreciate the obvious glee bubbling beneath every one of the film’s wryly observed frames. However slight it might appear upon first glance, Who Wants to Kill Jessie gains considerable heft by making palpable the giddy enthusiasm that existed during the brief window of creative freedom in which it came to be.