One of the most striking things about Saikhom Mirabai Chanu’s Olympic silver win last week was the smile that spread across her face. It appeared even before the lift was over, while she was holding the weight above her head. A lot is spoken about the intensity of sport, especially when the Olympics are involved, but not so much about the sheer joy of athletic achievement.
Chanu’s smile reminded me of other athletes who liked cracking a grin in the heat of competition. There’s Kapil Dev, smiling even as he runs 20 yards to complete a difficult catch to remove Viv Richards in the final of the 1983 World Cup. Or Ronaldinho, performing miracles with a goofy grin. There’s my favourite, the fictional Andrew Lindsay, played by Nigel Havers in Chariots Of Fire (1981), who runs with a huge smile on his face.
On the day of Chanu’s win, I watched Something Different (streaming on MUBI), the first feature by Czech director Věra Chytilová. Here too were moments when tension and back-breaking effort took a back seat to exhilaration and satisfaction. Czech gymnast Eva Bosáková plays herself, or a version of herself, with preparations for a tournament captured in a documentary (if avant-garde) fashion. Bosáková was an Olympic gold medallist in 1960 and a gold medal winner at the World Championships in 1958 and 1962. She formed a world-beating partnership with Věra Čáslavská, the most decorated gymnast in Czech history.
The first scene is of Eva performing a floor routine. She’s wearing a black leotard against a white background. Shot in closeup, the effect is bracingly abstract, the bluesy piano on the soundtrack adding another layer of playfulness. As the credits end and the camera pulls back, we see that the images we were watching were of her on a TV set, where a young boy is watching her. He’s packed off to bed by his mother, Vera, who sings a lullaby to him before returning to her card game.
Vera, played by the actor Věra Uzelacová, is the other protagonist of Something Different. We see her at home, cooking, cleaning, minding her boisterous child while her husband is at work, and occasionally playing host. Her husband has lost interest in her, and when the opportunity presents itself, she tumbles into an affair. The two stories have little in common on the surface (though the transitions from one to the other are witty (like Eva going under the bars and Vera chasing her boy under the table). Still, their juxtaposition asks the viewer to consider why homemaking isn’t considered work, and why it’s so difficult for a woman to do a job and raise a child (Eva and her husband-coach don’t have children).
In a letter, Chytilová wrote of this film: “I attempted, by telling the apparently unconnected life stories of two women, to show the meaning behind human endeavour, to reveal what makes or mars our self-fulfilment.” It’s not even as clear-cut as saying one is frustrated and the other fulfilled. Eva longs for a normal life; we only see her experience it once, when she gives the slip to her minders, going out and listening to jazz. Nor is she free from a world of men—when she offers an interviewer a slice of cake, he asks if she has baked it, a question that almost certainly wouldn’t be asked of a male athlete. Her husband keeps her on her toes with exhortations and taunts, at one point even slapping her during practice (though shocking, Eva is all smiles a minute later after executing a difficult manoeuvre—perhaps this isn’t the first time).
Chytilová would go on to make the anarchic Daisies, her best-known film, three years later. Something Different is less riotous in its politics and its aesthetic strategies but it’s clearly the first film of a director with mischievous energy. It notably predates Miloš Forman’s Loves Of A Blonde (1965) and Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (1966) in the Czech New Wave, and, in the gymnastics scenes at least, it is their equal. One of Eva’s practice sessions begins with us observing her upside down. We see her perform like this for a while, until she does a graceful handstand and the camera does a 180-degree flip of its own, at which point everything is the right way up.
MUBI has picked an excellent time to feature this lesser-known title. The Olympics have brought with them a series of controversies centred on women in sport. Sha’Carri Richardson was dropped from the US track team when it transpired she had consumed marijuana—hardly a drug that enhances athletic performance. The Norwegian women’s beach handball team was told their shorts were too long. Germany’s female gymnasts wore full-body unitards in protest. British archer Naomi Folkard and Spanish swimmer Ona Carbonell, both nursing mothers, had to leave their babies behind because the rules were too restrictive. Chytilová’s film was made in a markedly different era but its ideas of female self-expression and patriarchy in sport seem entirely, depressingly modern.
The film unites its twin visions in a comic scene at the end, a bulky sanitation worker walking shakily but successfully across the same balance beam we have seen Eva negotiate expertly in her tournament win. Eva herself is retiring; we see her coaching a younger girl who looks just like her. In the closing moments, there’s a big smile on her face.
Something Different is streaming on MUBI.