Jan Svankmajer
A Quiet Week in the House
Medium: short film
Year: 1969
Writer/director: Jan Svankmajer
Keywords: animation
Actor: Vaclav Borovicka
Country: Czechoslovakia
Language: Czech
Format: 20 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065101/
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 22 May 2013
A Jan Svankmajer short film that's more disturbing than usual.
We begin with a bloke watching a house through binoculars. He might be a spy. He has a map up his nose, which he pulls out, unrolls and then eats. (There's a beetle on it at the time.) Soon after that, he breaks into the house with a set of burglar's tools and then starts drilling holes in internal doors.
All this is shot in flickery sepia, like a silent-era home movie. The bloke's played by Vaclav Borovicka, by the way, who's a writer rather than an actor but the year before had been one of the Fence People in Svankmajer's The Garden.
It's a "week in the house" is because our hero's mission is to look through the holes he drills, then to lie down and go to sleep so that he can do the same at another door the next day. He ticks these days off on a calendar. He's live-action, but what he sees when he looks through his holes is Svankmajer stop-motion animation and in colour. It's peculiar animation, by the way, even for Svankmajer. He's trying a peculiar juddering effect that's not easy to watch and would have come across as a technical snarl-up if Svankmajer hadn't later used it on some live-action footage too. The latter's impressive. It's not at all obvious how he did it.
In other words, it's a live-action framing sequence for lots of animated snippets. These are freaky. Every single one is disturbing in some way. The pigs' trotters being bound with wire looked human to me until I realised. (And why the false teeth?) The tongue's adventures are horrible, then surreal (and also horrible). It's even disquieting when there's no flesh being toyed with or mutilated, such as the sweets that turn into rusty screws before climbing on to the keys of a typewriter. Theoretically it's not far removed from seeing broken glass climb out of baby food. I even got the willies from what happens to that clockwork toy chicken. It's not gory or anything, but it's as if Svankmajer's seeking out deliberately whimsical and pointless ways for the universe to be cruel. That chicken had been escaping to freedom.
The framing sequence is what gives the film its meaning, I think. It ends with the man commits an act of destruction... but he runs back to complete his calendar-crossing even though it's pointless and dangerous (because the calendar's about to get blown up along with everything else). Furthermore, I have a feeling that his earlier crossings-out on that calendar had been shown to us out of sequence. In other words, Svankmajer's showing us a man with the power of life and death over this cruel, arbitrary world... and it's a bureaucratic, pointless kind of power whose only discernable priority is bookkeeping that doesn't even make sense.
He also shaves. That made me squirm a little too, even though nothing happens. Razor blades being used on-screen, ew.
Is he a spy? A terrorist? A metaphor for the government? Obviously this film was made the year after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia and it's hard to imagine Svankmajer turning out that way if he hadn't been living under a communist dictatorship... but I'm not going to be so reductive as to insist that that's the only reading of this film. It's surrealism. Its meaning is thus anti-meaning. You're meant to find your own interpretation of it, if you can, and personally I think it's rich and demented enough to support a dynamic life beyond the cultural context of its creation.