Well-regarded, even for Svankmajer. This short film won three major awards in 1983: the Grand Prix from the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, and two gongs at the Berlin International Film Festival: the Golden Bear for Best Short Film and the C.I.D.A.L.C. Award (Honorable Mention). Terry Gilliam also put it in his top ten list of his favourite animated films of all time.
It's good. It's regular Svankmajer, if there is such a thing, which means it's stop-motion animation with familiar objects doing things that suggest that someone's a bit disturbed. It's also got lots of clay and no dialogue at all, despite taking that as its subject.
It's a three-part film.
1. Factual conversation
This might be inspired by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a 16th century Italian painter best known for painting portraits that were really just collections of fruit, fish, vegetables, etc. These would be arranged in a head shape. Anyway, Svankmajer's borrowing this idea and doing three heads. One is made of food, one is kitchen utensils and the last is writing implements. These heads move along in their two-dimensional world, eating each other, chewing their components into little pieces and then vomiting them up again.
It's a sort of life cycle. What's interesting is that the heads evolve as their component matter gets violently smashed and crunched. Is this progress? Is this a meaningful metaphor for human intellectual discourse? If so, it's violent and savage, not to mention obscurely gross... but it's also transforming crude monsters into something that's, eventually, recognisably homo sapiens. This is where the clay men are born, whom we could be argued to be following through the other two segments of this film.
These men still eat their fellow men, though. That's all they do.
2. Passionate discourse
It's clay. It's also amazing. Svankmajer has used clay in other films, but here he's animating full-blown sculptures. It's a finished work of art, of a kind that you'd need to be a trained sculptor to have even the faintest hope of building... and it's animated.
It's a nude man and woman. If you've been waiting all your life to see animated clay boobs, here's your chance. They talk silently, then they dissolve together into a roiling sea of clay, mashed up but sexually vigorous. That's freaky, but the interesting bit comes with the little blob of jumping newborn clay that is yielded by their union and tries to bond with its parents. Svankmajer's an evil bugger, isn't he?
3. Exhaustive discussion
This final section takes the clay sculptures to yet another level. We have two old men's heads, this time with glass eyes. They talk silently, again, but this time it's represented by household objects coming out of their mouths. Svankmajer's no more upbeat about the fruits of human discourse than he had been in the first two segments, with his surreal explorations ending up in a place for which my notes contain the words "cracked", "bloated", "pointless" and "destructive".
It's great, of course. I loved it. However I'm slightly surprised by its acclaim, since I don't think it's much of a departure for Svankmajer. Thematically it's caustic, obviously, but it's also less vicious than some of his other films in what it's saying. Stylistically, of course, the clay sculptures are astonishing. Should be watched by everyone, naturally.