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Forman vs Forman

Documentary about the late Czech director investigates the life and work of a very subversive artist who challenged the Communist regime and found professional fulfilment in Hollywood - live from Cannes


Entirely narrated by Milos Forman himself (in Czech, English and French), Forman vs Forman offers a clear and auspicious flash tour past the extensive career of the Czech-born filmmaker, who later naturalised as a US citizen. At 78 minutes, it will likely please both die-hard fans keen to see and hear their idol and those less familiar with his filmography. The movie is solely made of archive footage and extracts from Forman’s films deftly combined with Forman’s voiceover from various interviews. The director passed away last year in his chosen home, the US.

Chronologically and didactically constructed, Forman vs Forman starts off with the director recalling his youth in the tiny Czech town of Caslav, and being perplexed and confounded at having his parents taken away to a concentration camp by the Nazi, where they would be killed. He recalls being too young to fathom the gravity of the situation. We then learn about his early days as a students, and how he became a filmmaker. He despised the so-called “social realism” films made in Czechoslovakia. He thought that they were “boring”, and that there was nothing realistic about them. Instead they portrayed an idealised vision of Communism. His early films Audition (1963) and Loves of a Blonde (1965) were heavily influenced by Italian Neorealism, he explains. He became one of the leading filmmakers of the Czechoslovakian New Wave movement.

Forman’s straightforward, humanistic streak, combined with the prominent use of non-professionals, quickly won hearts around the world. His 1967 comedy The Firemen’s Ball was a mockery of the Communist regime, and consequently banned in Czechoslovakia. The ban was lifted by the liberal communists who took over following the Prague Spring of 1968. Forman’s allegiance to revolutionary thinkers wasn’t confined to his birth nation. In 1968, he withdrew The Firemen’s Ball from competition in Cannes (precisely where this doc has just premiered) in solidarity with the student protests in Paris.

Following the return of the Stalinists to power later in 1968, Forman migrated to the US, leaving behind his first wife and twins. He wouldn’t return to the country for almost two decades, after giving up his birth nationality in favour of American citizenship. He confesses that he found freedom boring, at least in some ways.” The hippies did nothing but smoke joints, he complains”. He recalls having fun dribbling and tricking censors back in Czechoslovakia.

Forman lived in the iconic Chelsea Hotel for three years, where he grappled with depression and slept up to 23 hours and day, following the commercial and critical failure of his first American movie Taking Off (1971). But not everyone disliked the film. Michael Douglas was impressed, and consequently invited him to direct Someone Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), which won the Best Picture Oscar and catapulted Forman to fame. He would repeat the achievement nine years later with Amadeus. The 1984 film enabled him to reenter his home nation for the first time since the late 1960s, where he encountered his wife and children. By that time, he had wholeheartedly embraced the American culture and the US, where he would spend the rest of his life.

We then learn that he was elated about Velvet Revolution of 1989, when his youth friend Vaclav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia, that he had another set of twins with a different woman, and how The People vs Larry Flint (1996) fit in neatly with Forman’s perceived notion of freedom. But then the film ends, entirely omitting the last two decades of his life. That’s very strange, as the director was still active, making films and giving interviews up until his final years.

Forman vs Forman is showing at the 72nd Cannes International Film Festival as part of the Classics section.

By Victor Fraga - 18-05-2019

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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