Snježana Tribuson: The Three Men of Melita Žganjer (Tri muškarca Melite Žganjer, 1998)
reviewed by Karla Lončar © 2011
All her life Melita wants to take the cake. Especially when it comes to finding a perfect mate. Shy, passive, with low self-esteem, but fanciful and hungry for love, she is a fictional character we often meet on the screen of movie theatres, especially romance movies or romantic comedies. Snježana Tribuson's film The Three Men of Melita Žganjer (Tri Muškarca Melite Žganjer,1998), praised among Croatian critics and very well received by domestic filmgoers, surely belongs to the latter genre. A multiple national prize-winner in several categories, this well-directed and written film represents a stylistically impressive and humorous portrait of a wallflower in a search for the object of her desire.
At a time when most of the Croatian films were occupied with recent wartime or postwar struggles, Snježana Tribuson, an acclaimed director and screenwriter, offered a considerable detachment from the harsh socio-political reality, and brought about an intimate and escapist celluloid fantasy, which got through to tens of thousands of people in Croatia and beyond. Although preoccupied with a plot which could best be described as a modern fairy tale, Tribuson spiced up the narrative with ironic comments on the delicate line between fiction and reality and parodied many aspects of Croatian culture.
And the main protagonist, played by Mirjana Rogina, indeed does not quite understand which verbal or non-verbal messages belong to a true, or real, lovers’ discourse and which ones are just fake or belong purely to fiction. She fantasizes about having a passionate relationship with a sweet-talking macho man like Juan (Filip Šovagović), the star of a Latin soap opera, at the time a very popular TV genre in Croatia, called Slave to Love and savior of a beautiful diva-like victim, played by the late Ena Begović (also a star in the extra-diegetic world), with whom Melita would gladly switch places.
Apart from daydreaming, Melita, a chubby confectioner from Zagreb, socializes with her two roommates with whom she shares an old Upper-Town flat. By representing the antique interiors of Zagreb’s middle class and the romantic exteriors of the old Upper Town, as well as the contents of Melita’s flights of fancy focused on the wishful world of bonne-etiquette, the film is remarkably reminiscent of Krešo Golik’s One Song a Day Takes Mischief Away (Tko pjeva zlo ne misli, 1970). Much like the slowly dilapidating Zagreb Upper Town and socially deteriorating middle class, Melita is also somewhat outdated in her expectations of love. Mentally she lives in a world similar to Golik’s fictional 1935 Zagreb, where relations between men and women are traditional, women submissive (just as she is), men expected to be bold and courteous like Juan, and where love is expressed in a rather deprecating manner.
However, The Three Men of Melita Žganjer also resembles another great Croatian film. Namely, the character of Melita seems very similar to filmmaker Dunja, and especially her TV series character and counterpart Štefica Cvek from Rajko Grlić’s film In the Jaws of Life (U raljama života, 1984), an adaptation of Dubravka Ugrešić’s novel Štefica Cvek u raljama života. All these female characters share similar weight problems as well as problems with insecurity and their personal lives. Calibrated with a witty postmodern ironization of typical women’ genres and gender stereotypes, Grlić and Ugrešić, as co-screen-writer, inspired generations of women to question their feminine roles under the conditions of the constant social commands to have a skinny figure and a gorgeous prince in shining armor by their side. In addition, Tribuson was clearly also inspired by Grlić’s and Ugrešić’s humorous representation of Dunja and Štefica and their adventures with different men in a topsy-turvy collision of fiction and reality, and decided to make her own artwork by loosely following a similar formula.
As the title of Tribuson’s film suggests, Melita had a few interesting situations with men as well. Structurally divided into three parts, due to the three objects of Melita’s romantic interest, the film introduces the principal man of her life, Janko (Goran Navojec), a confectioner like Melita, as seemingly the opposite of the man of her dreams. He stutters and is therefore reluctant to speak with women, especially Melita, with whom he is in love. He falls for her because, among other things, she is not aggressive, which is a personality trait he dislikes and fears. Melita likes him too, but is pretty unaware of his feelings. So she tries to find another, more masculine man with the help of her two friends and roommates: co-worker and outgoing coquette Višnja (Suzana Nikolić) and cold, strict policewoman Eva (Sanja Vejnović).
After Eva brings Melita to a police party at a restaurant, Melita meets the second object of her desire—Jura (Ivo Gregurević), a pettifogging Don Juan, or even a Mr. Fulir from Golik’s film mentioned above, who uses his verbal skills to get to sleep at Melita’s place because his wife has thrown him out. Fortunately or unfortunately, he does not have sex with Melita, who, ultimately, finds out he was also involved with Eva in the past. However, after learning that the actor who plays Juan, Antonio Mullero, the third man in the story, is about to act in a film shot in Zagreb, surprisingly self-assured and primly dressed Melita rushes onto the set, where she gets to act a wounded and unconscious woman in a hospital scene with Antonio. What is more, she even gets a chance to speak with the actor, utterly mesmerized by everything he says. That is, until he accuses her of stealing his sunglasses. Disappointed by the unfortunate revelation of his true character, she rushes into the arms of Janko, who is accidentally catering on the set. And, from then on, they live happily ever after, in their own perfectly frosted world.
The sweetness of the sentimental entanglements between characters corresponds with Tribuson’s depiction of bold colors, especially shades of pink, and an iconography that reminds us of the aesthetics of women’s magazines, cookbooks, and old-fashioned interior decoration. A combination of these elements inevitably evokes glimpses of nostalgia for a past time when the roles of women (and men) were strictly determined. In several instances Tribuson goes over the top and approaches the aesthetics of camp. Hence, her character representation aims to be exaggerated, which serves her humorous and ironic detachment from stereotypes well. Even if you feel sympathy for Melita and the man of her dreams and fall under the spell of the feel-good conventions of romantic comedy, the director makes you consciously or subconsciously revise your learned expectations of the peculiar film genre by putting the same musical performance of Davor Radolfi from the impressively reconstructed telenovela Slave to Love to the credits of the film. In this way, film’s fictional elements are exposed once more, for the sake of the viewers’ sense of humor and, for some, for the sake of their critical minds.
The most illuminating scene, regarding the dismantlement of the illusory aspects of the fiction, takes place at the film’s metafilmic sequence—when Melita accepts the role of an extra on the film set. The scene shows Antonio lecturing Melita on the proper words and modes of acting, in order to see to it that she look more “genuine” for the love scene. Although she hears him, she doesn’t quite understand what he is saying. Just as if she had a real wound on her head (but not in her heart), made for the purpose of filming a scene of a film inside the film, she listens to Antonio and hears only what she wants to hear: his declarations of love which, up to that point, were always directed at a lovely looking co-star of his, not her. Eventually, she wakes up from her somnolence, but not as a result of realizing she is succumbing to the alluring nature of fiction, but rather as a consequence of Antonio’s harsh accusations flung at her. Revolted by the brutality of her idol, she escapes into the safety of Janko’s embrace, who reacts in a rather instinctive and emotional manner, relieved that he doesn’t have to put any mental effort into informing Melita of his intentions.
In this way, their relationship becomes a union between two people who wish to escape unpleasant and aggressive reality, and who remain unaware of the conditions that are making reality so complex and, at times, unbearable. Just as in Philippe Barry’s definition of love: “Love is two minds without a single thought,” Melita and Janko, too, are mindlessly bound together in a free-flowing wellspring of emotions. Their communication is only seemingly contrasted to the one from the telenovela and definitely compatible with their dominantly affectionate personalities, which mirror each other perfectly. Namely, they both represent an ideal by genuinely practicing lovers’ discourse at its best; they are primarily emotional, sincerely devoted to each other. More so, traditionally viewed, they are quite feminine in their expressions, passive, and in search for a soul mate with whom they could live in a protected world. That is, in a world relatively free of alienating social pressures, but sometimes made a bit difficult because of pranks and teasing by Melita’s benevolent friends.
Of course, almost everyone fantasizes about this kind of romantic relationship, only by readjusting one’s gender role in it, according to one’s inclinations. And it is definitely easy to feel good about the happy ending. Tribuson also seems aware of the escapist quality which she proposes in her dream factory. To please the part of the audience who seeks more than light amusement, however, she has an ace up her sleeve. And that would be the previously mentioned irony, through comments which imply that it is ok to want to live a life that looks like a hybrid of a telenovela and a fairy tale, where everything ends in a joyful and pleasant way, where people survive a plane crash as do Maria and Juan, or perhaps, miraculously walk after spending years being disabled, find their siblings in an unexpected way and/or become intensely joined to the ideal partner. But, with the sounds of Davor Radolfi’s voice, the director wants us to step back and realize that this is all just a fantasy, including the characters with whom we eagerly want to identify with, which does not need to, or even have to, be implied in the real world.
So, by combining these two aspects—conventional romance and irony, Snježana Tribuson’s function is somewhat of a confectioner, too. She made a visually lovely cake, which the audience could have and eat it, too, but, like the non-substantiality of the characters, the wonderfully crafted cake, lacking in just a little bit more critical substance, has not resulted in a distinctively tasty mash which will be remembered long after the film is consummated.
The Three Men of Melita Žganjer (Tri muškarca Melite Žganjer), Croatia, 1998
Color, 97 min
Director: Snježana Tribuson
Script: Snježana Tribuson
Director of Photography: Goran Mećava
Music: Darko Rundek
Editing: Marina Barac
Costumes: Vesna Pleše
Cast: Mirjana Rogina (Melita), Goran Navojec (Janko), Sanja Vejnović (Eva), Filip Šovagović (Juan), Suzana Nikolić (Višnja), Ivo Gregurević (Jura), Ljubomir Kerekeš (Žac), Ena Begović (Maria)
Producers: Josip Barlović, Vesna Mort
Executive producers: Irina Damić, Sanja Vejnović
Production: Kvadar, Croatian Radiotelevision
Snježana Tribuson: The Three Men of Melita Žganjer (Tri muškarca Melite Žganjer, 1998)
reviewed by Karla Lončar © 2011