Czech novelist Milan Kundera once said in an interview that Prague “is full of quirks and poetry, unlike any other city in the world.” If that’s true, then Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer has molded himself into Prague incarnate, embodying the essence of the city through himself and his work.
At 77 years of age, Svankmajer continues to crank out his own particular brand of poetry using unique filming techniques, and remains one of the few auteurs to have remained firmly and stubbornly loyal to the old way of doing things. In total disregard to the winds of change that howl and rage right at his doorstep, and staunchly devoted to his city, country and language, Svankmajer rises above the trappings of commercial success, the elusive edicts of the film industry and the demands of globalization. He’s probably a relic, but a beautiful and functioning one.
Svankmajer’s latest is “Surviving Life,” and to this the Czech master of bizarre horror brings all his trademark wit and insolence and a rich, creamy darkness mindful of the bitterest of bitter chocolate.
This time, however, there’s also an unexpected softness and compassion, tinging the story with — dare I say it — pastel hues that are completely new in the world according to Svankmajer.
This doesn’t come off as a sign of Svankmajer’s advanced maturity so much as a willingness to try on something different. He’s probably cackling quietly at his own explorations with sentiment. He was certainly doing just that during an interview with The Japan Times last week at the Czech Center in Tokyo.
“I don’t think the real, physical world that we live in is quite enough for us human beings,” Svankmajer told me. “Which is why many of us keep watching films; maybe we would like to peel back the layer of what we see before us, and see what’s underneath.”
The centerpiece of “Surviving Life” is the bald, middle-aged and inherently decent Eugene (Václav Helšus), who has stayed faithful to his wife, Milada (Zuzana Kronerová), through decades of marriage. Lately, Eugene is troubled by dreams of a sexy young woman (Klára Issová) who cavorts through his subconscious like an exotic butterfly, decked out in scarlet and smiling seductively.
It takes several nights of focused sleep to get her name: Eugenia, which happens to be the name of his mother. After more shuteye, he and Eugenia fall in love and she tells him that a baby is on the way. Asleep, Eugene is thrilled at the news. Awake, he’s horrified that either Milada will find out or that the dreams will stop and he’ll never see Eugenia again.
To prevent the latter from happening, he consults a female psychiatrist who, it seems, has her own issues. (She’s got animated portraits of Jung and Freud on her wall, and they both express their approval/disapproval of her diagnoses via facial twitches.) She tells Eugene that Eugenia represents his anima (his female side), and scolds him for impregnating his own anima. Eugene hangs his head, and doesn’t feel one bit better.
While other filmmakers may turn such subject matter into a tragi-comic love story (I can imagine Woody Allen taking a gleeful crack at something like this), Svankmajer carefully steers the story away from the Eugene/Eugenia relationship and avoids romanticizing both the story and its visuals. “Surviving Life” consists mainly of animated photo cutouts of the actors moving against a backdrop of a black-and-white Prague (also photos), while Svankmajer favorites such as giant animated snakes and chickens constantly pop out of buildings’ doors and windows.
Everything is disproportionate in size, especially the heads and torsos of the cast, and this gives the whole package a distorted, disturbing feel. The film uses no sophisticated CGI, but the visuals feel heavily textured and multilayered, like a room crowded with furniture, the wallpaper peeling and revealing all sorts of hidden bugs and secrets. It’s a strange sensation.
Contrary to the received wisdom that life is here to be enjoyed and personal happiness is a priority that exceeds all others, Svankmajer poses life as an unfathomable riddle, full of gaping potholes that can suck you in and trap you in some torturous dream. Eugene’s dreams present a reality that has nothing to do with the everyday world in which he lives, but both are weird and mysterious, pushing him to delve further into his consciousness to see what he might find there. His is a life loaded with hassle and way too many complications, but somehow it seems infinitely more satisfying than the stuff we’ve come to know as modern life.