To state the obvious, Jan Svankmajer has problems. This movie freaked me out the most of any of his feature-length films to date, although in fairness I'm only halfway through them. Alice
is weird, but it didn't disturb me because I'm amused by the idea of turning Lewis Carroll into an amoral grotesque stop-motion nightmare. Lunacy
is a misanthropic scream against civilisation, but again that's right and appropriate for a combined adaptation of the Marquis de Sade and Edgar Allan Poe.
Otesanek though is just wrong. It's also a bit of a struggle to get through, although definitely worth it if you like seeing warped things you haven't seen before.
It's based on a folk tale by Karel Jaromir Erben (1811-1870), who was a Czech historian, poet and writer. This explains a lot. If you've ever read actual folk tales, not the modern sanitised versions, you'll have some idea of where Svankmajer's coming from. Our main characters, Veronika Zilkova and Jan Hartl, are a married couple who can't have children. We see Hartl having hallucinations about this as he goes about his daily routine, in which babies are when you get when you cut open watermelons, or perhaps a street butcher might be wrapping babies in newspaper to serve to his customers. We wonder if he's cracking up... but he's a model of sanity compared with his wife. Oh, she seems normal at first. She seems nice. She's pretty. However she has a whirlwind of emotions she's aching to unleash on offspring and after a while, she finds an outlet.
It's a weird one, mind you. This makes the first half uncomfortable viewing. Zilkova and Hartl are "clawing at the asylum" nutters and there's no way this can end well. It's all mundane and avoiding surrealism, except for very occasional Svankmajer animated throwaways, e.g. an elderly paedophile's groin reaching out for a small girl. No, I'm not kidding.
Then in the second half, the film veers into fantasy. You can call it magic realism if you like. This is just as disturbing, horrific and messed-up as what went before, but a bit easier to watch because the fantasy element provides distance. The story's now about more than just broken-brained sick people set on self-destruction, although obviously that's still a factor. It even becomes quite fun to see ghastly things happen, in a semi-masochistic "I survived the first half" way. Finally the film throws up some plot developments that I think you'd have to be mentally ill to see coming. That girl. No, no, no. You can see the psychological basis for the overidentification, but it's still taking the film in a direction that's extreme even compared with what had gone before.
What makes it interesting is its themes. Svankmajer isn't one for half-measures and there are a lot of black ironies in here. Zilkova and Hartl want more than anything to have a child and become a family... but they live next door to the only child in their apartment block, who's a chubby, unattractive lump in a family that's no advertisement for anything. "Do you think she'd know a good family if she saw one?" Dad's an insensitive block of wood. Mum's not unsympathetic, but she's not much use for anything either. Watch this film through to the end and then see what you think about Svankmajer's opinion of the bliss of family life, not to mention the psychological damage that can be wreaked by an unfulfilled desire for children. Look at the doublethink Zilkova ends up perpetrating. "He won't do it again." "Do you know how many human lives are lost in car accidents?" This is a mindset in which babies trump all morality and the entire world has been collapsed into a single binary question: "is it my child?"
There's a theme of infantilism, in which it's the adults who are most likely to be childish, irrational and incapable of acting except to fulfil their desires. There's a theme of food and eating. I didn't understand the scene at the end where pancakes move as they're eaten, but I can't say it doesn't fit the movie.
The actors are good, with the standout obviously being Veronika Zilkova. She has to cover a terrifying emotional range here and it's almost awe-inspiring to see how far she goes with her character's mental journey. Just look at how she changes physically. At the beginning, she's sexy. In the end, she's like a corpse that's still walking. Even more importantly the child actress (Kristina Adamcova) is reliable, which is a blessing and it's a shame that not being beautiful means she'd have had an uphill struggle to get more work. Show business is shallow. However everyone's perfect for their roles and giving realism to this extreme material. To put it mildly, tone could have been a problem.
Svankmajer's direction is odd, although of course that's a given. Even leaving aside his trademark use of stop-motion animation, he also loves doing square-on close-ups of things, e.g. a pan of soup, a flowerpot or a mouth eating food. He's forcing them to your attention, whether or not you think they're important. It's a surrealist viewpoint. He also likes extremes, as in for instance the lack of dignity shown to that naked pregnant woman in the doctor's examining room.
It's challenging. Can't deny that. It's also brain food, doing fairy tale things in a non-traditional way and using this as a vehicle for vitriolic themes. Incidentally it's mostly live-action, but with stop-motion animation that's far more integral to the movie than that in, say, Lunacy
. It's long, although I hesitate to call it too long given its power. Most people will hate it. It's slow, unpleasant, alienating and taking us inside the head of madness. (When doing publicity for this film, Svankmajer talked about the time he'd been given LSD as part of an experiment by the Czech military in 1972.) I think it's astonishing, although I'll be slightly impressed if you can reach the closing credits. I'd even call it brilliant. Svankmajer is aiming for targets beyond the ken of lesser mortals and shattering them.
Wikipedia thinks it's "comedic". Unbelievable. I'll admit that Cabbage Woman made me laugh at the end, though.
"Mum, can I ask you about my pre-natal life?"