Hot waters run deep

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The Independent Culture

Only a decade ago, Karlovy Vary looked like a ghost town - a run-down shadow of what had once been Karslbad, the glittering cosmopolitan spa of the 19th century, patronised by the literati, the crowned heads and the filthy rich. Its only patrons were dwindling numbers of depressed workers taking the waters for gastric complaints. Even after the Velvet Revolution, most locals thought the place had had its day.

Only a decade ago, Karlovy Vary looked like a ghost town - a run-down shadow of what had once been Karslbad, the glittering cosmopolitan spa of the 19th century, patronised by the literati, the crowned heads and the filthy rich. Its only patrons were dwindling numbers of depressed workers taking the waters for gastric complaints. Even after the Velvet Revolution, most locals thought the place had had its day.

They couldn't have been more wrong. Salvation came in the unlikely form of New Russians, whose tendency to abuse their livers is matched by a touching faith in health-cures. Their dubious but welcome funds have ensured that the neoclassical colonnades, and sugar-icing hotel façades are restored and shining, and fur and jewelry shops have sprouted on every corner. With its mixture of vulgarity and grace, corners of seediness and the sheen of Mafia money, the spa is now an almost absurdly cinematic setting for its most important annual event - the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

Like the town itself, the festival is a phoenix. Launched in 1946, a month younger than its snobby sister at Cannes, it was condemned to relative poverty and obscurity by the communist regime but enjoyed a brief heyday in the Sixties as a platform for the Czech New Wave directors. For the past 10 days, the huge range of international films and film-makers on display, and the hordes of young fans willing to sleep in pouring rain on marble forecourts, have justified hopes that the festival has regained its prestige and vitality.

It may not be Cannes, and despite flying visits from Franco Nero, Angelica Huston and Czechophile Woody Harrelson once again padding round the Grand Hotel Pupp in his bare feet, megastars were thin on the ground. But who cares? There was far too much going on for most people to limousine-watch.

The atmosphere, like the town, was more fin-de-siÿcle than futurist. Official parties featured scantily clad nymphs, fire-eaters and wrestlers, and a strip-show based on the orgy from Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. The festival trailer raised eyebrows with its motif of undulating bottoms and girls opening their legs to present the films.

This was paradoxical, given that the Czech home team was unusually strong on tough women directors with little resemblance to odalisques. The guest of honour was the grande dame of the Czech New Wave, Vera Chytilova, now 71 and still making no concessions to male sensibilities. Her latest film, Traps, concerns a veterinary assistant who is raped by two members of the new Czech establishment and takes her revenge by castrating them.

Vaclav Havel dropped in to support his old friend Drahomira Vihanova, whose new film takes on the hypocrisy of "white" attitudes to Romanies, while young Czechs were in ecstasies at Ene Bene, a stunning small-town comedy from Alice Nellis, not yet 30 but set to take the male-dominated world of Central European cinema by storm.

The festival's moving force is also a woman of huge energy, Eva Zaoralova. Her biggest headache concerned films that didn't turn up. Russian customs stopped several crossing the border and another got caught in a downpour in Poland. Even the veteran Itanian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami, the chairman of the international jury, was briefly lost in transit. movies. But when rising temperatures in the festival headquarters, the Hotel Thermal, proved too much, or the party hangovers too cruel, festivalgoers could always escape to the spa centres, for complete rehabilitation.

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