Surviving Life -- Film Review

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VENICE -- A grand master not just of innovative animation techniques but of life itself, Jan Svankmajer, a.k.a. the Animator of Prague, brings all his East European wit and dark humor to his sixth feature-length film, "Surviving Life." Shot with a unique technique using animated photo cut-outs of actors, the film is an unmissable pleasure for festival audiences and fans. Its complex storyline and unfamiliar look, however, will not be everyone's cup of tea. Rather extraordinarily, the film won only a minor prize in Venice.

Just as whimsical and outright weird as films like "Little Otik" and "Lunacy," this new work cannot rightly be called a horror film like its predecessors. In fact, one of the film's several extended titles is "a psychoanalytic comedy," which vaguely describes the struggle of the middle-aged Eugene (Vaclav Helsus) to come to terms with his dream life.

Though married to Milady (Zuzana Kronerova), a woman his own age, he begins to dream repeatedly of a lovely young woman (Klara Issova) with various names that begin with an "E." Eventually he realizes her name is Eugenia, like his mother. (Most viewers will get there first.) As his dream relationship with this delightful young lady progresses, she becomes pregnant.

Fearing he will stop dreaming about her, he consults a psychoanalyst who has animated portraits of Freud and Jung on her wall, silently expressing their approval or disapproval of her interpretations. She identifies Eugenia with her patient's anima, his female side, and is horrified to think that he has gotten his anima pregnant.

Though the story unfolds like an amusing intellectual detective story, it is not all fluff. There was real tragedy in Eugene's childhood, and the final revelation is enormously satisfying, as it presents what was hidden deep in his subconscious all along. The animation techniques are a powerful key to its disclosure.

The multi-hyphenate Svankmajer is at the height of his filmmaking powers as director, artistic director and storyteller here. He appears as a talking head in a wild, tongue-in-cheek opening sequence, where he warns the audience there's no money in filmmaking and they are probably not going to laugh anyway.

His long-term reinvention of surrealism in a contemporary idiom continues in the film's bizarrely amusing look, achieved by using photo cut-outs of the actors, which become animated for the camera. Dialogue is recorded, cut up and computer regenerated. At times, only the actors' faces are filmed as live action, while the rest of their body is not. Giant snakes, chickens, eggs and feet are constantly popping out of windows on the black and white backdrops of photographed Czech buildings. The disproportionate sizes of people and objects, not limited just to dream sequences per se, give a collage-like feeling to each screen moment.

Hats off to the painstaking animators and to a well-chosen cast who lent themselves to cut-to-paste performances.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (In Competition)
Production company: Athanor Film Production Company, C-GA Film, Czech TV, Universal Production Partners
Cast: Vaclav Helsus, Klara Issova, Zuzana Kronerova, Daniela Bakerova, Emilia Dosekova, Marcel Nemec, Jan Pocepicky, Jana Olhova, Pavel Novy, Karel Brozek, Miroslav Vrba
Director: Jan Svankmajer
Screenwriter: Jan Svankmajer
Producer: Jaromir Kallista
Executive producers: Juraj Galvanek, Jaroslav Kucera, Petr Komrzy, Vit Komrzy
Directors of photography: Jan Ruzicka, Juraj Galvanek
Production designer: Jan Svankmajer
Animation: Martin Kublak, Eva Jakoubkova, Jaroslav Mrazek
Music: Alexandr Glazunov, Jan Kalinov
Costumes: Veronika Hruba
Editor: Marie Zemanova
Sales Agent: Athanor
No rating, 105 minutes
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