Dalibor Matanić: Fine Dead Girls (Fine mrtve djevojke, 2002)
reviewed by Marko Dumančić © 2011
Since his debut feature The Cashier Wants to Go to the Seaside (Blagajnica hoće ići na more) in 2000, Dalibor Matanić has become one of the most talked-about Croatian filmmakers. Domestic critics not only praise his films but also point to him as the type of bold and innovative artist that could raise the industry’s reputation abroad and revive the interest of local audiences in national cinematography—no small feat, to be sure.
Indeed, one cannot but marvel at the moviemaker’s productivity and duly deserved critical acclaim; in a decade he has produced six feature-length films and a couple of award-winning shorts. Although all of Matanić’s films have created a buzz and several stirred heated controversy at home, this review focuses on his 2002 feature Fine Dead Girls (Fine mrtve djevojke). This motion picture is significant not only because it reflects his artistic philosophy but also because it provides critical insight into the representation of queerness in Croatian and Balkan cinema since 1989. Fine Dead Girls cemented the director’s reputation at home and in Europe as a filmmaker who challenges injustices, conservatism, complacency, and uniformity of modern societies. Despite the fact that various commentators regularly treat Matanić’s films as a reaction to the monotonous propaganda pieces that dominated Croatia’s silver screen under the censorship-happy regime of Franjo Tuđman, Fine Dead Girls in particular and Matanić’s opus in general offer more than a straightforward condemnation of ubiquitous parochialism and intolerance in Croatia. Rather, this young director wrestles with more demanding questions about everyday evils, social isolation, and the possibility for redemption.
Matanić’s oeuvre has dealt with what he terms “invisible” people and spaces (whether interior or geographic) which the general population overlooks or dismisses as irrelevant. Asked about how he feels about being called “the protector of those who are different” (“zaštitnik onih koji su drukčiji”), Matanić somberly responded that he generally likes to depict people who live on the margins because in today’s world all reasonable individuals—not only targeted minorities—are marginalized and tossed to the side (Simić, T. 2008). On another occasion Matanić more pointedly declared that he is “a man who shocks” (“Ja sam čovjek koji šokira”). The tremors this director unleashes with his motion pictures, however, stay clear of cheap sensationalism and are instead aimed at stirring the listless public life in Croatia from its indulgent and costly moral hibernation. Matanić declares that life in Croatia is a bit stale: because everything moves at a snail’s pace, audiences need a thunderous wake-up call to become aware of contemporary problems (Prica, 2008). In 2003 this young Croatian director outlined a cautious “activist” agenda: “I would like to help the whole of society if I could, but I don’t know how powerful art is to help at present since it is so marginalized. How is it possible to cleanse people, to galvanize them into action?” (Trajkov, 2003). Six years and three feature films later, Matanić expressed the same level of dismay at the reactionary impulses of Croatian society while exhibiting the equal level of determination to fight them with his films. He observed: “Instead of some sort of evolution, some sort of progress . . . our civil society is gradually disintegrating. But one thing is for certain: each of my subsequent films will continue to dissect this society ever more forcefully.”
True to his word, each of Matanić’s films has tackled a topic either neglected or purposefully ignored in the public discourse. In 2000, his quirky The Cashier Wants to Go to the Seaside looks at how long a modest, kindly cashier suffers injustice from people less noble than she when her only desire is to take her daughter for much-needed medical seaside convalescence. Becoming one of the most watched films of the year, The Cashier secured Matanić the caché with which to advance his point of view even more vigorously in his next production. In 2002, Fine Dead Girls became the first postwar Croatian film to deal explicitly with the issue of same-sex love and homophobia. In this macabre film noir, the moral depravity consuming Croatia’s “upstanding citizenry” costs a lesbian couple their lives. The 2006 I Love You—another first in Croatian cinematography—deals head-on with the issues of HIV transmission and society’s intolerance of the HIV-infected population. As with other of Matanić’s films, I Love You addresses larger social ills; in the director’s own words: “I wanted to deal not only with AIDS . . . but also consider . . . a society in transition in which everyone wants to make up for the years of want under communism by voraciously consuming everything they can swallow . . . which inevitably leads to emotional and spiritual breakdown….” (Simić, T. 2008). His latest feature, Mother of Asphalt (Majka asfalta) takes a long, hard look at the bedrock of Croatia’s Catholic society: heterosexual marriage. Matanić deftly juxtaposes the traditional/institutional views of heterosexual marriage with a humanist/personalized perspective to flip conventional wisdom about this “institution” on its head.
Of all his films to date, Fine Dead Girls arguably left the deepest mark on Croatian society and the cultural scene. First featured at Croatia’s main film festival in Pula, the movie achieved an impressive feat by winning the Grand Golden Arena for best film, the Golden Gate of Pula Audience Award, and the Critic’s Choice Award. The film not only signaled the coming of a cinematic master but also announced the arrival of a bold new perspective in Croatian cinema. Representing an unapologetic “dressing down” of Croatian society, Fine Dead Girls features two lesbian lovers as protagonists in this fast-paced noir thriller.
The narrative begins ominously with a knock at the door. The dweller of the musty, stifling apartment in a derelict building opens the door to find a detective and two police officers accompanied by a short-haired and strikingly beautiful Iva. The policeman coolly asks the inconspicuous middle-aged tenants—Olga and Blaž—whether they have kidnapped Iva’s son. Having found no trace of Iva’s child in the building, the detective later encourages Iva to reveal why she has accused a seemingly harmless, ordinary couple of such a heinous crime. In a series of flashbacks, Iva reveals how she and her girlfriend, Marija (Mare), moved into one of the apartments Olga was renting. Although it seems at first that the pair has found a perfect love nest, it soon becomes obvious that they are surrounded by a gallery of unsavory characters. The ghoulish cast of neighbors signifies the ills besetting contemporary Croatian society: a xenophobic veteran suffering from PTSD who physically abuses his wife for not bearing him sons; the “gynecologist” Perić who performs illegal abortions in a primitive, unhygienic attic; a pensioner who hides the rotting corpse of his wife in the apartment (à la Psycho) in order to continue receiving her retirement checks; and a young, petty, self-satisfied prostitute. The individual misdeeds these characters commit are compounded by their collective guilt as they turn a blind eye to each others’ misconduct. The ringleader of this ninth circle of hell in the outskirts of Zagreb is the sadistic Olga, who keeps everyone under her thumb and worships only her son Daniel, who is a coarse skinhead. After Iva rejects Daniel’s insistent advances and Olga discovers that her two new tenants are lesbian, the stage is set for disaster. Goaded by his mother, Daniel rapes Iva while Marija is away. Once aware of the crime, Marija confronts the rapist and in the course of their struggle Daniel meets his end under the wheels of a train. A witness to her son’s death, Olga immediately rouses the tenants who, in a fit of mob psychosis, push Marija down the stairs (and to her death) as she tries to escape them. Iva survives the episode but, as the plural in the title suggests, dies a different kind of death: she marries Dalibor, the man she dated before meeting Marija.
Although several aesthetic and narrative aspects of this motion picture call out for analysis, the treatment of lesbian characters and their relationship jumps out as the film’s most unique aspect in the context of postwar Croatian cinematography. As one of a handful of Balkan films that places same-sex protagonists center-stage, Fine Dead Girls continues to evoke lively and constructive critical and scholarly discussion in regard to its treatment of lesbianism. Like many other domestic film critics, the inimitable Nenad Polimac positively evaluates Matanić’s attempts to deal with the dynamics of a lesbian relationship. He argues that: “Although Fine Dead Girls is not a typical gay film that auto-reflexively concerns itself with the hidden nuances of homosexual relations. . . the film succeeds precisely because of the realistic portrayal of the heroines’ personal relationship” (Polimac, 2002). Film scholar Mima Simić, however, unearths a more sinister side to Matanić’s “queer movie.” Through an incisive feminist and queer reading, she convincingly demonstrates that showing same-sex desire as natural does not automatically qualify Fine Dead Girls as a “lesbian film.” In fact, Simić contends that Matanić produced a “sexist and patriarchal product that operates within the same repressive film tradition which represents lesbian (and female) characters as victims and establishes lesbian relationships as an impossibility. (Simić, 2006) Building on the works of K. Moss and D. Iordanova, she observes that much like the Yugo-era films that featured the Roma population—which were made neither by nor for the Roma—“queer films” serve as a metaphor for the patriarchal and sexist processes that are transpiring in the Balkans. As Kevin Moss also notes in his work: “In Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. . . gay and lesbian characters are used as a metaphor for nationality.” (Moss 2008: 136)
Faced with the postwar demographic crisis and an EU enlargement that threatens the purity of the nation, the lesbian celluloid heroine is forced to uphold the nation’s demographic, ethnic, and nationalistic agenda by denying herself the same-sex contact she craves. Thus, Simić’s analysis demonstrates that Iva’s and Marija’s death is not a cautionary tale about what happens when a society tolerates/condones patriarchal and sexist attitudes; instead, Fine Dead Girls becomes another cultural product promoting female heterosexuality as the only acceptable mode of behavior for women in a country obsessed with a declining birthrate and the inviolability of its national identity as it fears being swallowed whole through EU enlargement. Even though Simić acknowledges that heterosexuality is presented as the grotesque opposite of the innocent Sapphic love between Iva and Marija, she maintains that Fine Dead Girls nonetheless represents lesbianism as something to be rejected in order for the nation to secure its existence. What is more, Simić asserts that Matanić presents lesbianism as a choice and a condition that can and must be overcome (Simić, 2010: 213).
However compelling Simić’s arguments are (and they are indeed persuasive), this reviewer could not but notice that for a movie aimed at promoting traditional female roles (as a way to symbolically ensure the [procreative] health of the nation), Fine Dead Girls takes great pains to portray male heterosexual characters as chronically incapable of assuming patriarchal roles. Throughout the narrative the progeny’s behavior and women’s (procreative) choices are effectively out of men’s hands; they are symbolically impotent to perform basic patriarchal duties. Daniel’s rape of Iva (his attempt to impregnate her and “teach her to love cock”) ends in his death; the “gynecologist” Perić not only performs abortions (thus depriving the Nation of offspring) but also fathers a mentally handicapped son; the veteran with PTSD drives his wife to terminate pregnancies that will not yield male offspring; Blaž is ashamed of his son throughout the movie but cannot help him because he turns a blind eye to Olga’s every crime; and even Iva’s husband Dalibor—the only untainted male in the narrative—has no idea that his picture-perfect marriage is a sham. In fact, one of the last exchanges in the movie suggests that all married men know precious little about their spouses. When asked whether Dalibor knows about her lesbian relationship, Iva shoots back a question of her own to the detective: “Do you think you know everything about your wife? You know other people better than your own family.” In short, Matanić produces masculinities that are damaged beyond repair; the gendered system he presents is so thoroughly dislodged from its heterosexist axis that the impossibility of homosexual unions would hardly be sufficient to compensate for the masculine lack. If indeed Matanić introduces a lesbian couple only to have them sacrifice their same-sex love on the altar of the Homeland, it is necessary to note that he also makes men incapable of receiving/making use of such a sacrificial offering.
Although Fine Dead Girls is not a “lesbian film” since it casts Marija and Iva as metaphors for larger socio-political processes rather than flesh-and-blood characters, it seems to this reviewer that (based on Matanić’s oeuvre and his artistic philosophy) this film should not be judged (exclusively) from a “queer perspective.” Rather than being evaluated on the merits of motion pictures made by and for queers, it might be worthwhile to weigh it against the standards of its own category; i.e. to motion pictures such as Jen Nemec’s A Report on the Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech) or Andrzej Wajda’s Sewer (Kanał). By conveying a sense of a fragmented and angst-ridden collective consciousness, these cinematic parables certainly neglect to offer individual psychologies of particular characters, but nonetheless perform an indispensable task of transforming the silver screen into a mirror and forcing audiences to confront their era’s moral crises.
1] These include, in descending order: Mother of Asphalt (Majka asfalta) in 2010, Cinema “Lika” (Kino Lika) in 2008, I Love You (Volim te) in 2006, 100 Minutes of Glory (Sto minuta slave) in 2005, Fine Dead Girls (Fine mrtve djevojke) in 2002 and The Cashier Wants to Go to the Seaside (Blagajnica hoće ići na more) in 2000.
2] Luketić, Željko. Interview broadcast as part of Radio 101’s show “Cultural Interview” on 30 October 2008.
3] The film sold approximately fifty thousand tickets in Croatia and had astronomical ratings when televised, earning it the title of the most watched film of the year. See the director’s website for further information.
4] In another equally stimulating essay “Čuvarica granice” (also referenced here), Simić broadens her argument to include two other “lesbian films”: the Slovenian The Guardian of the Border (Varuh meje) by Maja Weiss and Dragan Marinkovič’s Take a Deep Breath (Diši duboko). Simić argues persuasively that these works criticize the patriarchal and nationalistic discourse/practice while simultaneously upholding the very same traditional ideology. By disabling the establishment of the female/lesbian subject, films that seemingly undermine the racist and sexist discourse ironically enable it in different ways.
Anon. 2008, “Nova hrvatska generacija: Moćni prije četrdesete,” Nacional, 29 December.
Lamble David. 2007, “Global Lens Festival Highlights,” Bay Area Reporter 1 November.
Moss, K. 2008. Three Gay Films from Former Yugoslavia. In: David M. Bethea, ed. American Contributions to the 14th International Congress of Slavists, Ohrid, September 2008. Vol 2: Literature. Bloomington: Slavica, pp. 125-38.
Polimac, N. 2002, “Fine mrtve djevojke—najbolji hrvatski film od Maršala,” Nacional 30 July.Prica, B. 2008, “Dalibor Matanić: "Od tate sam naslijedio preciznost a od mame smisao za loš humor,” Nacional 24 September.
Simić, M. 2006, “Fine mrtve djevojke: Zašto su prve hrvatske celuloidne lezbijke morale umrijeti?” Cunterview: Women Art Media Space 2 November.
Simić, M., 2010. Čuvarica granice: Celuloidna lezbijka kao dvostruka metafora u re/konstrukciji postjugoslavenskih nacionalnih identiteta. In: Edin Hodžić and Tarik Jusić, eds. Na marginama: Manjine i mediji u jugoistočnoj Evropi. Sarajevo: Mediacenter, 205-24.
Simić, T. 2008, “Filmska provokacija buntovnika s kamerom: Kako shvatiti ličke redikule,” Nacional 30 June.
Trajkov, Igor Pop. 2003, “I Love Actors: Dalibor Matanić Interviewed,” Kinoeye 26 May.
Fine Mrtve Djevojke, Croatia, 2002.
Color, 77 min.
Director: Dalibor Matanić
Script: Mate Matišić, Dalibor Matanić
Director of photography: Branko Linta
Art director: Željka Burić
Music: Jura Ferina and Pavle Miholjević
Editing: Tomislav Pavlic
Cast: Olga Pakalović, Nina Violić, Inge Appelt, Krešimir Mikić, Ivica Vidović, Jadranka Đokić, Milan Štrljić, Zdenko Sertić Krieger, Marina Kostelac, Boris Miholjević, Mirko Boman, Janko Rakoš, Ilija Zovko
Producer: Jozo Patljak
Production: Alka Film
Dalibor Matanić: Fine Dead Girls (Fine mrtve djevojke, 2002)
reviewed by Marko Dumančić © 2011