Money is one of the greatest ironies of art, cinema as exceptionally expensive form in particular. If we consider Picasso’s world-renowned proto-cubist oil painting The Young Ladies of Avignon (or as Picasso called it, The Brothel of Avignon), the five nude female figures, depicted in disjointed angles and shapes, may be from the working and much scorned-upon class. Today, however, as they find themselves housed at the MOMA, New York, their worth is estimated to more than a billion USD. However far Croatian cinema is from such figures, Lada Kamenski positions itself in a very similar class gap. Preparing to make a film about the tragic dissolution of the once-successful Kamensko textile factory in post-war Croatia, the director invites three acclaimed actresses for an informal rehearsal into his sleek house in Zagreb, with best cheese and Moroccan wine to offer. What is more, the director’s perspective on the plight of the factory—founded in Lika at the end of World War II, only to become a poignant symbol in the mythology of contemporary Croatia, of failed privatization processes and an industry in shambles—is only secondhand, based on the stories he had heard from his aunt, a former worker at Kamensko, a woman who could get a taste of Morocco probably only in newspapers.
The acting trio are initially not aware that the rehearsal is a competition of sorts. Very much like the script in the film, which revolves around three workers who stand as ‘the greatest support and greatest competition to each other’, where only one among them will continue working, the director has to choose which of the actresses will assume the leading role. These professionals, who thought it beneath them to even do the audition required, find themselves in the position where they have to prove their worth and, what is more, they have to do it before a man. For they know all too well that good and respectable roles for women are the unicorns of the motion picture industry in Croatia and beyond. Hribar and Šantić do not shy away from social criticism, never too glaring, but insidiously imprinted into often witty (meta)remarks. Pity for many young talented actresses, as one observes, a comment which might as well be applied to the brain-drained Croatia as a whole.
The sparks start flying as the film workers attempt to find their own way to the role, be it by relying on their sexual energy, resorting to provocations (‘Don’t they teach that at the Academy?’) or simply retreating. In addition, with the names of characters being same as the real, true names of the actresses, this metatextual play becomes the lifeblood of Lada Kamenski. Ksenija Marinković, Doris Šarić-Kukuljica and Nataša Dorčić are self-assured and bold in their performances and, as the night wears on, their personal lives and personalities seem to dominate the screenplay. Acting becomes difficult to distinguish from (enacted) reality; the script within a script and this reality, the film within a film. They all intermingle with no clear borders between them. The table read explodes into a (meta)fictional ego clash. Now that they all have to fight over the same role, it becomes clear that these women—save for their profession—have nothing in common. A sense of the collective, so essential for workers’ rights, seems completely unattainable. Vitriolic remarks and quips are many and ever personal, and it does not help in the slightest that the director’s reaction to the chick fight he caused is passive and insecure.
The issue of Kamensko, and the problems of an oppressed working class, become something of a visual fetish; narrative-wise, these all depend now on the filmmaker’s judgement. However, his apparently male screenplay does not have the final word here; it is only secondary to the supra-textual one, one by Hribar, centred on the fundamental moment of pre-production: casting. It proves a perfect playground for examining (and magnifying) the position of workers in late capitalism, seeing that casting is not just contingent on a creative decision in a vacuum, devoid of any morals, politics or discrimination; in the context of the entire industry, the casting process is necessarily an enactment of the gender- and market-based competition.
Free market is built on a strict and ultimately unfair calculation of the worth of labour. Art here is only a more sophisticated word for industry and, within that industry, the idea stands as the main currency. As such, not even ideas can be removed from the given socioeconomic categories and opportunities. At the end of it, everyone needs to pay their bills and – if we consider the logistics of artistics expression – cover the costs of materials and equipment; colours, brushes, lighting or cameras. In such a neoliberalist scene, collective action is not as important. Acting, in fact, is an individualist affair by nature, a discipline that always assumes a competition of sorts, the casting, which can depend upon the talent, experience, marketability or something completely different. There are no clear-cut or even moderately defined rules. Nataša, Doris and Ksenija find themselves trapped in such uncertainty, coupled with perpetual hesitation and mutual goading.
It is an undisputable fact here, though, that the three women are, when push comes to shove, members of the same community. However disunited in their actions and thoughts—recalling Picasso’s ladies where each is shown in its own uniquely proto-cubist shape and style—the three actresses all belong together, on both the social and the cinematic levels. Little by little, each manages to turn against the director in their own way, while resisting the constraints of the text itself and, thus, developing a sense of unity. Unfortunately, be it hundreds of workers of the Kamensko factory who persisted and continued going to work for seven months, hoping for their pay, or the three actresses that struggle for a sense of control over the situation, their victory remains, best case scenario, moral gain. The position of women-workers everywhere—and so in the bordel of Croatian cinema too—is dictated more by systemic injustice, and less by individual responsibility.