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Czech director Jan Svankmajer is probably best known for his two freewheeling adaptations of literary favorites: Alice (1988), from the Lewis Carroll book, and Faust (1994), inspired by the writings of Goethe and Christopher Marlowe. Both films were surreal, darkly comic retellings of classic stories that mix live action with stop-motion and claymation animation techniques to memorable effect.
The 83-year-old Svankmajer, whose work has inspired filmmakers ranging from Terry Gilliam to the Quay Brothers to Benh Zeitlin and his Court 13 collective, has made several movies since, including the underrated 2005 whatchamacallit Lunacy. For his latest effort, the director decided to take on another, more forgotten piece of literature — an absurdist 1922 work called The Insect Play by Karel and Josef Capek — though this time he also turns the camera on himself to reveal the secrets of his creative process.
The result is the hybrid film Insect (Hmyz), which, as its title portends, is about insects — or rather, about people behaving as and dressing up like insects to put on a show. But the play’s not necessarily the thing in a movie that constantly shifts between the stage and lots of behind-the-scenes action, showing Svankmajer and his dedicated crew shooting the film.
For those interested in how, for instance, the Czech director works with fake vomit or can make a giant ball of dung chase someone across a room, there is much to enjoy here, although some viewers may grow tired of the nonstop mayhem. Premiering in Rotterdam’s Deep Focus section, Svankmajer’s first feature since 2010’s Surviving Life will play best with his loyal fans, while film students may want to check out how animation can still be done the good ol’ fashioned, pre-CGI way.
Speaking directly to the camera in a sort of preface, the director mentions how The Insect Play can be interpreted as a sociopolitical satire that foresaw the rise of Hitler and Stalin a decade or so later. He also explains that he concocted his screenplay in a fit of automatic writing, warning us about the chaos to come.
Indeed, it’s rather hard to follow this story of an overzealous theater director (Jaromir Dulava) trying to stage a play with a bunch of no-good amateur actors, many of whom are half-dressed as different types of bugs: beetles, crickets, flies and, later on, a giant larva. What’s clear is that the director cares much more about the work than the others, and that he’s married to a lead actress (Kamila Magalova) whose mood oscillates between flirtatious and hysterical. At some point, the director stabs his wife in the back for real, or at least it looks like that, and then later on she’s somehow pregnant. There are also hijinks involving a drunken railwayman who guzzles bugs in his beer and a man playing a dung beetle who gets chased by that aforementioned giant turd.
Putting aside all the zaniness, which can be exhausting, the various making-of scenes are at once fun, funny and informative in their own right, and it’s a pleasure to discover how Svankmajer achieves the kind of effects that have been a hallmark of his work since the 1980s. Mostly he uses real things — in this case real bugs, weapons and food — or else constructs models out of clay and other materials. (He also still shoots on 35mm film, using classic Eclair Cameflex cameras.) Sound plays a major role as well, and we get to see several times how his Foley team comes up with different noises to mimic all the onscreen bedlam.
The result is perhaps more interesting as a glimpse into Svankmajer’s methods and madness than as a standalone narrative (or meta-narrative) feature. Still, it’s nice to see that the Czech iconoclast hasn’t lost any of his biting sense of humor, even if Insect seems to be mostly about Svankmajer joking to himself. There are, however, a few darkly comic, creepy-crawly moments that bring to mind the work of fellow Prague native Franz Kafka, which leaves one asking the obvious question: After so many literary adaptations, why hasn’t Svankmajer ever tackled The Metamorphosis?
Venue: Rotterdam Film Festival (Deep Focus)
Production company: Athanor Film Production Company Ltd.
Cast: Jaromir Dulava, Kamila Magalova, Ivana Uhlirova, Jan Budar, Jiri Labus, Norbert Lichy, Pavel Novy
Director: Jan Svankmajer
Screenwriter: Jan Svankmajer, freely adapted from ‘The Insect Play’ by Karel and Josef Capek
Producers: Jaromir Kallista, Jan Svankmajer
Directors of photography: Jan Ruzicka, Adam Olha
Production designer: Jan Svankmajer
Costume designer: Veronika Hruba
Editor: Jan Danhel
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