‘Surviving Life’ movie review: Jan Švankmajer’s psychoanalytical comedy

Beloved by animation fans worldwide though largely overlooked on his home turf, master animator Jan Švankmajer is, perhaps, best-known for his eclectic output of shorts from the mid-60s through the early-90s; my favorite: Darkness-Light-Darkness (forgive the YouTube quality, and do yourself a favor and pick up the definitive BFI collection). After Alice, his debut 1988 feature-length film, Švankmajer has continued to mix genres and styles in features (culminating in Šílení, which is, I think his best work) to the delight of fans across the globe.

Přežít svůj život (Surviving Life) came and went from Czech cinemas with little fanfare last fall, and wasn’t screened locally with English subtitles. Since then, it’s made a light splash on the festival circuit, picking up positive reviews in trades Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, among other publications.

In almost every way, Surviving Life is Švankmajer’s most accessible work, from the style of animation to the fairly straightforward (if you want it to be) narrative. Now, “accessible” isn’t something I’m looking for in a Švankmajer work, but I was generally impressed by the results here and can easily recommend the film to most audiences without reservations.

“We couldn’t raise enough cash,” a paper cutout of the director tells us as he introduces the film. “This was supposed to be a regular feature film…but we had to use a much simpler technique: paper cutout animation, like in the old kids’ TV programs.” 

Švankmajer goes on to explain how they were to save on transport costs, actor’s fees, and catering (because photographs don’t eat). I love his tongue-in-cheek genuineness here. In one of the DVD supplements, he concedes that they didn’t actaully save on the actors’ fees, as actors tend to want to be paid based on the size of their role, and for the use of their image. At least he saved them some time.

Anyway, the cutout animation here has been directly influenced Monty Python’s Flying Circus-era Terry Gilliam. It’s crude, in many ways (though the sheer amount of photographs used to complete some sequences is impressive), but also genuinely appealing, with free reign for Švankmajer to throw us whatever comes into his mind: women with chicken heads, chicken with woman heads, and everything in between (also: teddy bears with raging erections, armies of toy soldiers, giant snakes and alligators roaming city streets, and leftover tongues from Šílení.)

Surviving Life tells the story of Evžen (Václav Helšus), happily married to wife Milada (Zuzana Kronerová), who has strange dreams of a woman named Eve or Emily (Klára Issová). Like Alice down the rabbit hole, he’s drawn in; he wants to dream more, not unlike the heroes of The Science of Sleep and The Good Night.

A doctor recommends Evžen see a psychoanalyst; soon, Dr. Holubová (Daniela Bakerová) is revealing the meaning behind his dreams via anima, super-ego, and Oedipus complex, and Evžen’s further dreams start to make sense. Or is she just spouting Freudian nonsense and shaping Evžen’s innocent dream world into complex mother issues?

Surviving Life can be enjoyed on both levels, as a straightforward examination of dreams or a subversive satire on Freudian theory (the latter being my preferred interpretation). 

Either way, a particularly memorable, even haunting, climatic scene provides a sense of closure. While the real and dream worlds blend together – at times, you won’t be able to tell them apart – the director’s usual surrealist tendencies have generally been toned down here. Purists might object, but general audiences will find this a more approachable film than usual.

Švankmajer will turn 77 later this year, but shows no signs of slowing down. Up next: an adaptation of Karel Čapek’s On the Life of a Beetle, tentatively scheduled for release in 2015.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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