lux film prizeGiornate degli Autori - Venice Days

09 September, 2010

Surviving Life

I've had the pleasure of watching Jan Svankmajer's new feature, Surviving Life while here in Venice, and I am thrilled to have come across a film influenced by surrealism. Although not active in the peak years of the movement, the films of JS have always had a healthy nod of the head to its poetic lack of logic and its respect and fear of the subconscious world. You can see an early short of his next to give you an idea of his particular take on surreal film:

An animated JS introduces his film in its first few minutes. He announces that: "What genre is the film? Surviving Life is a psychoanaltical comedy. This is because one of the characters is a psychoanalyst." In Venice this drew a big laugh from the audience. But it isn't technically a joke! This is certainly because the audience were literate in JS's particular style of dead-pan comedy. He then added: "I really wanted to make a feature film. But I didn't have any money. So we took pictures of the actors and animated their photographs. This was much cheaper because photographs don't eat."

The film portrays a man who becomes addicted to his own dreams. He chases them to the detriment of his marriage and his career. Going deeper into these dreams, he discovers repressed memories - aided by his psychiatrist - that spark a full-blown investigation into his own past. The content of these dreams is highly surrealistic: lust for the female form, fear of the unnamed male aggressor, automatic image associations - all under the pretext of Freudian and Jungian psychology. The film drips with surrealistic connections, and for a fan of the genre, made for a thrilling ride of a film.

The style of animation that JS has used for this film reminds me of South Park or a children's TV programme. This gives the very real existential and exterior problems for the film's protagonist a naive, dream-like quality that for me, creates a thrilling unity of form and content. Of the many depictions of dreams in cinema, this is one of the most convincing. The characters' movements are stilted and wooden like Magritte's everyman, their facial expressions like kabuki masks creating a mad, distancing and somehow prosaic world for this film. These passages are cut seamlessly into close-ups for detail shot on film, reminding me of the 1960s series Thunderbirds, notorious for its abandonment of its shiny wooden puppets in favour of a veiny, hairy, real hand reaching for the gun in the holster.

Apologies for throwing so many disparate references around just then.

I fully threw myself into the experience of watching this film, and feel like a I know JS far more after watching this film than I do after a lot of other auteurs' work. It's all there up on screen!

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