Love Life of a Gentle Coward finds the source of its comedy through a deft exploration of gender roles in the modern world. It benefits from a strong screenplay by Pavo Marinković (who also directed) that, in some ways, feels like the sort of comedy Woody Allen would make if he were still in his prime. Aside from its neurotic examination of romance, the film works as a fairly deep rumination on the way social expectations have muddied the relationship waters.
The titular gentle coward, Saša (Nenad Cvetko), works as a meek culinary critic for a struggling newspaper. He’s a divorced father, intimidated by his ex-wife’s new beau, uncertain of how to act around anyone—especially women. His love interest, Ines (Dijana Vidušin), once played professional volleyball. A career-ending injury has left her unhappily working as a no-nonsense jack-of-all-trades in an all-male athletic club. After a particularly stressful week, Saša goes for a massage at the club. Ines is the masseuse.
A relationship starts to develop. Saša feels inferior not just to the men Ines has been involved with, but to Ines herself. Cvetko’s scrawny frame and sunken, sad eyes resemble a Croatian Steve Buscemi, which aids the character. He’s intimidated physically by nearly every character in the film, but Ines gives him some confidence. “Your balls are different,” she states after Saša’s self-pitying rant about his inability to stand up to the men threatening her at the club.
It’s a somewhat crude statement of theme. Saša spends most of his time thinking about how he lacks balls, but he’s ballsy in a brainy way. During their awkward first date—at an empty five-star restaurant he’s reviewing—Ines’s reaction (“I’d like a kebob from the stand across the street”) inspires a hostile screed against the snobbery and exclusionary tactics of fancy restaurants. It’s the sort of thing Saša’s editor has clamored for (“You keep writing essays. People want opinions. Badmouth, like a real journalist!”), but it’s too aggressive. Especially in light of the fact that the restaurateur is related to a vicious political candidate.
Politics play a role in the film that’s largely unnecessary to the story, but vitally important to its contribution to Croatian cinema. As you may know, Croats have had some…trouble. Marinković wisely relegates the political chicanery to the story’s background, but the upcoming election casts a long shadow over all the characters, no matter how seemingly apolitical.
Before long, Saša’s inferiority complex and somewhat pathetic attempts to both impress and protect Ines put the relationship in jeopardy. It’s here that Love Life of a Gentle Coward has ample opportunity to plunder bland American romantic-comedy clichés, but Marinković defies clichés at every turn. The end result is a film that’s rewarding for anyone who appreciates the odd mixed messages each gender receives about its role in society and relationships, yet it remains distinctly Croatian.
If you like your romantic comedies dark and male-focused, Love Life of a Gentle Coward is the best recent example that doesn’t have Judd Apatow’s name on it.