ROTTERDAM REVIEW: The Story of O: Jan Svankmajer's "Otesánek"
by Mark Peranson
(indieWIRE/01.30.01) -- Again turning to an old folk tale for his twisted inspiration, the perennially intriguing Czech avant-garde artist Jan Svankmajer buries the boundaries between reality and story-tale fantasy with the odd, cumulatively disturbing "Otesánek." With far more live action footage than twisted animation -- what Svankmajer is most noted for in prior films like 1996's "The Conspirators of Pleasure" -- "Otesánek" is a comic nightmare come to life. The unconventional, surrealistic parable is made all the more scary by its roots in a recognizable, commonplace reality, and the questioning of a regular human urge that many breezily satisfy without reflection -- the desire to bring life into the world.
Within seconds, Svankmajer creates his own world that 'seems' to resemble our own, and dares us to buy into the consequences of distended normalcy. Bozena (Veronika Zilkova) and Karel (Jan Hartl) have the bad luck of both being impotent. One day, Karel digs up a tree root in the backyard of their cottage and whittles something that vaguely resembles a human figure. Bozena immediately leaps onto it and claims it as her "real" child, naming it Otik, delicately caring for it (by pruning his nails with garden shears), and hatching a plot to convince all their friends and neighbours that she's pregnant. Befuddled, Karel is forced to play along, failing to realize that his wife will never give it up. When Otik is finally prematurely "born," Bozena treats it like a living, breathing human, though with enough common sense to hide the stump from the view of others.
They don't account for the precocious girl next door, Alzbetka (Kristina Adamcova), who hankers for a playmate of her own. When she's not warding off the lecherous glare of an octogenarian pedophile, Alzbetka is reading books on sexual dysfunction and infertility. Little do her parents know that when she hides the book by switching covers with a tome of old Czech folk tales from author K.J. Erban, the children's book is more dangerous. Accompanied by animated images, she reads aloud the legend of Otesánek, a tree stump that comes to life and devours everything in its path. Nobody seems the least bit surprised when Otik begins to do the same (Karel, for one, is merely frustrated), though the soon-to-be baby food family cat must have had quite the shock. More than just pretending, Bozena and Karel have happened onto the secret of creation itself, and have challenged the rules of nature. For this egotism, someone must pay.
After a disproportionately lengthy series of unwelcome visitors meeting with mishaps, Karel finally "comes to his senses" and banishes poor, now-massive Otik to the basement, only to have Alzbetka take over as his caregiver. This proves what we knew all along: adults aren't to be trusted, and their behaviour can be more "childish." And if a few of them have to be sacrificed to keep Otik happy, then what's a girl got to do? Feed him.
As usual for Svankmajer, borderline disgusting close-ups of food are just as common as close-ups of humans. Otik grows exponentially whenever he consumes, often steaming piles of pork; but Alzbetka's family is always seen slurping up their evening meal. Surely the film has as much to do with the director's own fears -- Svankmajer has admitted that he suffered a horrible aversion to food when he was young -- yet it also relates to society as a endless chain of products being served up as fodder for mass consumption.
Over two hours, and somewhat predictable, "Otesánek"'s somewhat bloated length has the needed function of making both the parents', and, later on, Alzbetka's, totally irrational behavior understandable in context, and situates all of them as figures playing out a fairy tale. Svankmajer's world is one where rationality has gone by the wayside, where visible manifestations of inner wishes and nightmares appear before our very eyes. (The opening sequence features a number of memorable tableaus of babies a go-go, not the least of which is the sight of a salesman on a street scooping newborns out of a large tub with a fish net, weighing them, and selling them to eager women in line.)
He withholds more than he shows, and when Otik's flailing wooden limbs and carnivorous "mouth" finally appear, we're treated to something out of "Alien" more than the superficially similar "Little Shop of Horrors." In these disturbing, yet amusing, sequences, it is best to remember that animate means "bring to life"; Svankmajer's anti-civilizational nihilism is something that must be tolerated, but not necessarily endorsed. He creates by destroying.
This week Rotterdam has turned into something like Svankmajer central, with three levels of the Chabot Museum housing an exhibition of Svankmajeroserie forged by the director and his wife/art director, Eva. Also on view are his films "The Conspirators of Pleasure" and "Faust." And "Otesánek" can clearly be seen as another version of the latter creationist parable.
Before his first screening here, Svankmajer announced that there exists no one interpretation for the film -- that "Otesánek" is to come alive in the minds of each viewer, and that "all the ones you have are right." Such is the case with any fantastical fairy tale worth its weight in celluloid dreams. But perhaps the interpretation for the most currency may be seeing the barren couple's actions as a thinly veiled reference to the real possibility of genetic cloning. In a near future where governments are poised to play God, "Otesánek" might just be something like a clarion call for responsibility, one that North American audiences will hopefully have the chance to hear, and heed.
[Mark Peranson is the editor of Cinema Scope magazine (insound.com/zinestand/cscope) and a programmer for the Vancouver International Film Festival.]