Who Wants to Kill Jessie? (1966)

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Well, this was quite something. Not entirely sure what Who Wants to Kill Jessie? (Czech: Kdo chce zabít Jessii?) was exactly, but I certainly am not convinced that it wasn’t something absolutely extraordinary. Whether you love or hate this film, there is very little doubt that this is one that will linger with you, for better or worse. I can attest to this being one of the strangest, most bizarre films I have ever seen (and I consider David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky to be pretty coherent filmmakers, so that’s definitely saying something).

Who Wants to Kill Jessie?  is about a married couple, both of them scientists. Dr. Ruzenka Beránková (Dana Medrická) has discovered a way how to view the dreams of individuals, and remedy nightmares. Unfortunately, a result of this is that the dreams materialize into reality. When her husband, Dr. Jindrich Beránek (Jirí Sovák) forms an interest in a comic book that bears the same title as the film, he inadvertently dreams about it, and causes both the titular heroine, Jessie (Olga Schoberová) and the villains of her story (Juraj Visny and Karel Effa) into the real world, and absolute havoc ensues as they various characters try and solve this problem, and prevent it from happening again, because to bring dreams into reality could be a nightmare (yes, I meant to make that awful joke. I apologize profusely).

Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is a truly bizarre film if there ever was one. There just seems to be so much going on in this film, it just becomes a bit too overwhelming. However, when you consider it is a truly original piece of work, and a film that has a lot to say and executes its concept perfectly, it is shown to be a truly tremendous piece of cinema, and something certainly worth one’s time if they are looking for something extraordinarily fascinating and absolutely hilarious. It is a film that may serve to be obnoxious and too oddball for many viewers, but for those of us who are more adept at the more absurd aspects of life, Who Wants to Kill Jessie?  is one of the most endearingly odd films you could ever hope to see. To this day, I haven’t quite seen a film like Who Wants to Kill Jessie?  and I doubt anyone could make something quite as strange as this film, and they shouldn’t attempt to.

Who Wants to Kill Jessie?  is led by a very capable cast who execute their characters perfectly. Jirí Sovák plays the middle-aged, sexually-frustrated science professor who inadvertently finds himself bringing havoc to his community when a harmless dream is brought into reality. Dana Medrická is notably great as the groundbreaking scientist who forms a scientific revolution with her discovery but has to face her own problems when there are allegations that her husband may have a wandering eye (when in actuality, he just as an overly-active imagination). Olga Schoberová gives a wonderful performance without even saying a word until the very end, with her performance (as well as that of Juraj Visny and Karel Effa) being wonderful examples of performances hearkening back to the era of silent film. The cast works together well as an ensemble, and bring so much to their performances, it is actually quite remarkable.

Who Wants to Kill Jessie?  has its roots firmly set in the slapstick comedy tradition, and there are a vast array of visual jokes that make it a great example of a postmodern response to silent cinema. The film relies on long moments of no dialogue, but rather depends on the physical prowess of the actors in bringing this story to life, emphasizing the true brilliance that a physical performance can have in shaping a film. This is a film that crosses boundaries and makes itself a film that was way-ahead of its time. To consider that it takes a very futuristic approach while employing some mesmerizing moments inspired by cinematic antiquity is enough to recommend Who Wants to Kill Jessie?  as an absolute masterpiece of 1960s filmmaking. There are so many moments here that may not be awe-inspiring in a traditional way, but they impressed me so much in how they were approached.

Something else to note about Who Wants to Kill Jessie?  is that it is a truly genius satire. Consider that this film was made in 1966, which is when Czechoslovakia was part of the Soviet Union, in the height of the Cold War, where censorship and harsh political conditions were the most notable elements of the region. To call this a groundbreaking film is an understatement – Who Wants to Kill Jessie?  is a truly audacious satire that manages to cover important political and social themes without directly stating them, thus preventing any trouble coming its way from the authoritarian powers. Concepts of social power and class struggle, as well as discourses surrounding marriage and the life of the average Soviet citizen, were covered here tremendously well, and I don’t think I’d be entirely wrong if I considered Who Wants to Kill Jessie? to be one of the most biting and sardonic satires of the era, where it was tricky to make any bold statement, and thus it meant that these kinds of satirical stories needed to be circumvented somehow – and if that means a filmmaker needed to make a dark comedy about dreams coming to life, then so be it.

Who Wants to Kill Jessie?  is a great example of flawless surrealist cinema. I think this is one of the pinnacles of Eastern European postmodernism, which could be either dreadfully dark and disturbing, or playful and entertaining, while still retaining its utter brilliance at covering slightly darker and far dourer social issues, hiding them under a facade of joyful silliness. There isn’t any way to deny that Who Wants to Kill Jessie?  is a great piece of surrealist cinema, but I wouldn’t categorize it with the likes of David Lynch or Alejandro Jodorowsky – rather, it occupies its own category with other films that came to form the Czech New Wave. Creepy, innovative and utterly brilliant in many ways, Who Wants to Kill Jessie?  manages to be weird and endearing, all at the same time. If anything, I’d compare Who Wants to Kill Jessie?  to the films of  Luis Buñuel, who often made playful but socially-aware films like this.

Who Wants to Kill Jessie?  is a truly innovative film, and there are some wonderfully complex technical elements to this film that may seem dated and odd nowadays, but served to be quite ahead of its time when this film was made. To this day, I haven’t seen a film with this kind of concept surrounding it. The “gimmick” of having the realized comic-book/dream characters speak through “speech bubbles” may be a bit jarring at first, and I’d expect it to turn many people off, but once one gets used to it, it is shown to be incredibly entertaining. Who Wants to Kill Jessie?  also, has some very innovative sound design which contributed to the futuristic brilliance of this film. It is important to realize how groundbreaking Who Wants to Kill Jessie?  was, both for its era and the environment it was made within.

I may need to contradict myself a tad here – I said previously that there haven’t been any attempts to make a film like Who Wants to Kill Jessie?  since, but that may be a little false because there are some films that I would believe to be inspired by this film in some way. Most particularly, a film like Being John Malkovich owes quite a bit to this film, as do the films of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry. The latter even made The Science of Sleep, a great film that is also about dreams – I would not be surprised in the least to find that Gondry saw and inspired by Who Wants to Kill Jessie?  as it has the same kind of ribald, surreal and dreamlike humor that characterizes Gondry’s films.

Who Wants to Kill Jessie?  is a wonderful film. It has a great cast and a story that sticks with you for a long time. It is an original, audacious and brilliant film that was such an innovative piece of cinema, and one of the most incredibly fun films I have seen in a long time. It may have sunk into slight obscurity, but it is certainly a brilliant film that deserves to be sought out by anyone who wants something wholly original and fascinating, and just plain outrageous. What a great film and I can’t wait to watch it again.

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