Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer has been making stop-motion animation since I was in college. His trippy, rusty, discarded aesthetic has long played well with film snobs in my generation. According to a biography on IMDB, Svankmajer has also been a card-carrying member of the Prague Surrealist Group since 1969.
Surrealism has to do with dreams, and so does Freudian psychotherapy, which probably helps explain Surviving Life (Theory and Practice).
Perchance to Dream
An introduction tells us to expect a film where dreams and reality intersect. It also tells us that the Pythonesque style, which blends paper cutouts and live-action footage, has more to do with budget than aesthetics. What Svankmajer would do with a Cloud Atlas budget, one can only imagine.
Eugene (Václav Helsus) is having mildly interesting dreams about a woman in red, and about the daily chores of his life. He strikes up a conversation with a coworker, who describes his own interesting and vivid dreams about tanks, warfare, and narrow escapes. Eugene sets out to stimulate interesting dreams in his own life as well. Eugene asks his coworker what foods and sauces he ate on the day of his dreams. When the rich food stimulates nausea instead, Eugene looks for rare books and medical therapists who can help.
The woman in red’s name changes every time he meets her in his dream. Sometimes she has a young boy who interrupts their sex, and other times she’s single. When the dreams stop, he seeks professional help on how to restart them. He ends up in psychotherapy discussing the meaning of the dreams while portraits of Freud and Jung look on from the wall. Meanwhile, Eugene’s wife detects a change in his life and suspects him of having an affair.
There is much more to the plot, including characters who seem to be Eugene’s id and superego, issues with his mother and father, and even a glimpse into his wife’s dreams, but if you want to know the details, you’ll have to dive in yourself.
The fact that there is a plot at all, and that it can be explained without the surreal imagery, means that Surviving Life is more approachable and mainstream than I expected. But a little background in either surrealism or Freud will surely help you navigate the film.
The Teat of Creativity
Svankmajer’s imagery is organic, disturbing, and plausible in the logic of dreams. There are people running who make no forward progress. Flowers look like labia. A truckful of Guns point at the sky. Baguettes suggests phalluses, melons suggest fecundity. Apples and snakes turn up. Paper-cutout women walk around in Eugene’s dream with the heads of chickens who blink with their inhuman eyes.
For me, the joy of Surviving Life is the peek into someone else’s subconscious imagery — maybe it’s Eugene’s, and maybe it’s Svankmajer’s. It’s strange and fascinating, yet it also feels surprisingly honest and direct. The human mind does some weird stuff when it dreams. Svankmajer is merely the latest in a long line of artists to milk that organ for its nourishing secretions.