Surviving Life

Surviving Life


Reviewed by: James Benefield

Czechoslovakian animator Jan Svankmajer has a history of challenging and confounding audiences with his unusual brand of wry, surreal and macabre experimentation. So it's no surprise that Surviving Life (Theory And Practice) is every bit as weird and inaccessible as we've come to expect.

Svankmaker's unique selling point here is his combination of 2D stop-motion animation (think cut-up photographs and travel brochure backgrounds) with live action footage. The anxious flitting between the two mirrors the frequently indistinguishable line between dreams and reality which concerns the film's narrative. Although according to his rather self-conscious (and rather faux) introduction to the movie – it was cheaper to do it this way than get real actors to play the parts.

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After this introduction, in which we're also told that this is a film that's designed to be a comedy which won't make us laugh, we follow the story of a middle aged, happily married man – Eugene – who has some bafflingly abstract dreams. In one recurring dream, he meets a well-dressed, beautiful dark-haired woman who seems to change her name as often as she changes her handbag. The two soon strike up a relationship. Disturbed he is having these thoughts while happily married, Eugene goes to see a psychologist. He is told he needs to leave his wife… at which point his psychologist turns around and seduces him.

But despite the lashings of sex and the surreal (sometimes combined – we see a rather well-endowed teddy bear at one point), there is a reflective, nostalgic quality to Svankmajer's latest. This is not least as references to previous movies abound – within minutes we are treated to a stuffed toy leaking stuffing, in the same way the White Rabbit lost his insides in Svankmajer's debut feature Alice. There's the central May-September romance, of course. But it's also widely mooted that this is the Czech auteur's last movie. And the gradual slip into tragedy in the film's last few reels offer up a reeling pathos rare in a Svankmajer picture.

This is not to say the film is an easy watch with a cohesive, accessible narrative. The jarring, sometimes alarming, contrasts brought from the quick-fire editing and switching between animation and live action are distancing. The leitmotifs of snakes, clapping hands and lipstick are difficult to get a handle on. And the rather slow pace of the central story is borderline frustrating.

But for those who revel in detail, in playful textures and the highly individualistic, this is a must.

Reviewed on: 26 Oct 2010
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Eugene prefers a life of dreams to everyday reality in surrealist animator Jan Švankmajer's extension of one of his own dreams.
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Director: Jan Svankmajer

Writer: Jan Svankmajer

Starring: Václav Helsus, Klára Issová, Zuzana Kronerová, Daniela Bakerova, Emília Doseková, Marcel Nemec, Jan Pocepický, Jana Olhová, Pavel Nový, Karel Brozek

Year: 2010

Runtime: 104 minutes

Country: Czech Republic


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