Mr and Mrs Stodola

Mr. and Mrs. Stodola (Manželé Stodolovi) (2023)

Mr. and Mrs. Stodola (Manželé Stodolovi) has its UK première at the Glasgow Film Festival 2024

A man, Jaroslav (Jan Hájek), stands in the dark outside, pulling the hood of his hoodie over the stocking that is already stretched over his head. It is clear that he is up to no good. He hesitates, turns around, and heads into a house where a woman sitting by the window, Dana (Lucie Zácková), turns to look at this shadowy figure. Yet she is not, as it momentarily seems, his intended victim, but rather his instigator. “You didn’t go,” she says, “Take it off, I’ll take care of it.” He insists, “I’ll handle it,” as he struggles with her over the stocking that she is wresting from him – and then his elderly mother walks in, imagining that the two are having a domestic squabble.   

There is a lot to be learnt from this opening sequence of Mr. and Mrs. Stodola (Manželé Stodolovi) about the strange dynamic between this couple. Jaroslav is hesitant, reluctant, weak – “wimp”, Dana calls him, accusingly. If Jaroslav is the one who carries out their first crime, she is clearly the one who wears the pants and calls the shots, emasculating him one moment and seductively nibbling his ear the next, as she coerces him towards illicit acts – and she is not averse to getting her own hands dirty in their execution. 

Not yet married, though they soon will be, Jaroslav and Dana live with his ailing mother in a small Czech village that offers few prospects. Jaroslav is an alcoholic ex-con, dull, feeble and driven by his obsession with, and jealousy for, Dana, who is obviously way out of his league and has him wrapped right around her finger. Dana is a sociopathic manipulator all too willing to stay with Jaroslav so long as he does her bidding and gives her what she wants, even as all that he himself wants is the “normal woman” that Dana will never be. Their initial plan is to rob elderly neighbours of their savings, but the first of these robberies becomes a murder, and soon the two partners are embarked on a spree of what for Dana are thrill kills, and for Jaroslav are ways of keeping Dana happy and sustaining their unequal relationship.

Petr Hátle was previously known for making documentaries, and he brings a documentarian’s eye to this odd couple. While their murders are kept largely off screen, the behaviours of the newlyweds are observed from up close, with a fixed focus on their individual flaws and collective dysfunction. It helps that Hátle and Tomas Hruby’s screenplay draws closely on a true crime story from 2001-2. Like a gender-swapped version of Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers (1970) or Fabrice du Welz’s Alleluia (2014) – themselves also based on a (different) true crime story – this is a noirish amour fou in a dead-end milieu, with Jaroslav the lovesick chump and Dana the femme fatale

“Real loneliness is saying anything so someone will notice you,” Dana says at one point, which is perhaps as good an explanation as any for her attention-seeking exhibitionism and slippery mendacity. Dana is mercurial and chameleonic, her mood altering as suddenly as her hairstyles – and while her motives may ultimately be as inscrutable as madness itself, Jaroslav’s are simpler. For he just wants to settle down into a happy marriage and an ordinary life, but unfortunately has chosen Dana as his companion for these modest ambitions. It is Jaroslav who is at this film’s tragic heart, as a man whose desperate, doomed desires will lead him to do terrible things, guaranteeing that his dreams can never be realised, and that his hopes will be betrayed. For eventually Hátle will let reality catch up with Jaroslav’s rampaging fantasy, and force him at last to see Dana for who she really is – but it is too late for either of them, let alone for their many victims.

strap: Petr Hátle’s true-crime psychodrama studies the characters and motives of an odd couple on a killing spree

© Anton Bitel