I, Olga Hepnarova

Cast: Michalina Olszanska Martin Pechlát, Klára Melísková, Marika Soposká, Juraj Nvota

Director: Petr Kazda, Tomás Weinreb

Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Films about dead-eyed sociopaths are part and parcel of our cinematic legacy; with Kiss of Death, Psycho, Funny Games, and We Need To Talk About Kevin being just a few notable examples. Directors Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb's I, Olga Hepnarova focus on their own particular sociopath (portrayed by Michalina Olszanska) with a steady meticulousness which reinforces the film's bleak worldview.

A biopic shot in pristine black-and-white with the type of minimalist compositions so prevalent in Eastern European cinema, I, Olga Hepnarova seems at first to be yet another purposefully aloof deconstruction of a psychologically damaged soul. However, through Olszanska's remarkable performance (slouched posture, deadpan line deliveries, copious amounts of "cool" smoking) and an emphasis on how social constructs pervert self-worth, the film emerges as a deft exploration of youthful narcissism.

Though there are hints of a traumatic past and at least one instance of vicious bullying, the narrative trajectory from disaffected teen to adult sociopath capable of mass murder seems to stem mostly from a sense of helplessness masked by hubris. Drifting from scenes of Olga working menial jobs, seeking medical assistance, and engaging in various sexual trysts with random women, I, Olga Hepnarova may play for some as misery porn sans context. Looking past the surface, however, reveals a film displaying a nimble tonal mixture of provocation and understatement. Is this an examination of humanity's capacity for evil? A victim narrative tracking a social pariah forced into malevolence? An observation of what happens when unchecked egoism becomes indistinguishable from neurosis?

If Kazda and Weinreb remain coy about exactly how they view Olga's actions, then much of our interpretation of the character comes down to Olzanka's very specific, troubling portrait. As an aimless young woman with an ideological viewpoint disconnected from reality, there's an inherent problem of empathy that Olzanka somehow makes tangible simply through her physical presence and distinct way of speaking. It's a performance which begins as an arch representation of powerlessness (slumped shoulders, exaggerated walk) before eventually morphing into something much more defined and monstrous. By the end, we feel as if we understand how a person like this could arrive at such a place, even as the nature of the crimes remain unfathomable.

I, Olga Hepnarova derives much of it's intrigue by focusing on a central figure who may have suffered, most likely is plagued by mental illness, has at least some capacity for human connection, and has a vengeful philosophy which contradicts rationality. By presenting such a thoroughly complicated protagonist and never offering up trite explanations for her actions, the film's final moments of moral complication land with an anguished sense of power. The scariest thing is that Olga could be any of us; just a disaffected kid wandering about, washing cars, drinking beers, smoking, and plotting the next sociopathic move.