Surviving Life (Theory and Practice), 2010.
Written and Directed by Jan Svankmajer.
Starring Václav Helšus and Klára Issová.
A married man, bored of his job retreats into his dreams to live a double life with a beautiful woman. He becomes addicted to these dreams, quitting his job and renting a private room so that he can spend more time sleeping.
Anyone even vaguely familiar with Svankmajer's work will at least have an inkling of what to expect here. Since the 60s Svankmajer has crafted some of the most imaginative animated features ever to grace the screen, utilising stop-motion, claymation, paper-animation and live action to bring his surrealist tales to life. He has been a great influence on many directors, but most obviously Terry Gilliam, who lifted his off-the-wall animation style directly for the animated sequences in Monty Python. Unfortunately, he is has apparently stated that Surviving Life will be his last film, but he leaves a long legacy of astonishing, unique and frequently touching work for us to enjoy.
Surviving Life begins, amusing enough, with a prologue featuring Svankmajer himself, introducing the film to us. He explains that due to budgetary constraints, it was not possible to make the film entirely live action, so cut-out animation was largely employed (to cheekily illustrate this, portions of this prologue actually feature Svankmajer as an animated cut-out). He goes on to set the hilarious tone of the film, stating that animating photographs was cheaper because photos do not need to be moved to different locations, because there is only one location! (The studio). He adds that also, there are no catering costs, because photographs do not eat!
The protagonist of Surviving Life, Evzen, frequently visits a psychiatrist in what are the most entertaining scenes of the film. At first, his doctor propositions him, stripping naked to reveal herself as a chicken with a woman's body (these bizarre characters appear throughout the film) before mounting the alarmed Evzen. Later visits include cut-aways to the photographs of Freud and Jung mounted on the doctor's office wall. Throughout the character's conversations the pictures, lean in, strain to hear words, roll eyes, laugh and, later on, start to bicker and fight between themselves, ending with Freud kicking Jung off the wall and cutting his own thread as if to commit suicide. This kind of offbeat humour is a mainstay of Svankmajers work, appearing in many forms across this and many of his previous features. Other instances in Surviving Life include more naked females with chicken heads (including one which dashes about squawking comically), a dog with a human body which belongs to Evzen's boss (which later has sex with a female dog, Svankmajer's disturbingly exaggerated use of sound effects making the scene even more hilariously grotesque) and oversized clapping hands sprouting from windows to applaud Evzen and Evzenie's romantic gestures.
The presence of Freud in the psychiatrist's office isn't just for comedic effect, with the idea of the Oedipus complex being raised more than once by Evzen's doctor, the final scene echoing Jim Carrey's dream-sequence as a child under an oversized table in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Thematically, a number of comparisons can be made to Surviving Life's main thread of escapism through dreams. For example, another Michel Gondry feature, The Science of Sleep, tells the story of Stephane, a man who cannot distinguish between his elaborate dreams and reality. He falls in love with his neighbour Stephanie, but the reality of their relationship is juxtaposed with the one they have in Stephane's dreams. Surviving Life, while also featuring male and female protagonists with similar names (although Evzenie's name frequently changes to slight variations on a female Evzen, a comment on the fragility or changeability of dreams and memory perhaps?), is primarily about the same things, escapism through the subconscious and ultimately, romantic longing. I would also argue that Svankmajer's film bears relation to David Lynch's debut Eraserhead, in that reality and the dream world often bleed into one another (as with The Science of Sleep), frequently the two being indiscernible. However, Lynch naturally takes a far more nightmarish, though no less surreal approach to the material than Svankmajer, who maintains a comical air throughout Surviving Life with his frequent surreal 'set-pieces' (the chicken-women, the dog-man).
Although the Freud-Jung psychiatrist scenes punctuate the majority of the second act, the film does begin to drag a little, as not that much actually takes place. However the previously mentioned final scene and a mysterious photograph hold our attention well, with Svankmajer managing to resist utter abandonment of plot in favour of full-blown surrealist spectacle, although in this department, he certainly does not disappoint. If this does prove to be his final film, it'll serve as a fitting end to the astonishing career of no less than a cinematic master.
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