A group of actors meet in the Czech Republic’s filthiest theatre to rehearse Karel and Josef Čapek’s 1924 play Pictures from an Insects Life in Czech director Jan Švankmajer’s squirm-inducing film Hmyz (Insects in promotional material, but translated onscreen as the singular Insect), a ribald piece of surrealism that blends the political themes of the original play into both its fictional recreation and the actual behind-the-scenes filmmaking of the movie itself.
The result is weird, wild, and for Švankmajer fans, a pure delight. This is probably the final film for the 83-year-old filmmaker, and was financed in part thanks to contributions from Kickstarter; the result is a unique experience that gives personal insight into both the filmmaker and his craft.
Švankmajer himself opens the film with an introduction that establishes both the historical background of the play and the kind of experience that will follow.
Pictures from an Insects Life was one of best-known collaborations between Karel and Josef Čapek (Karel, by the way, invented the word ‘robot’ in his play R.U.R.), a political satire that re-imagined competing ideals in the then-newly independent Czechoslovakia through the world of bugs, as dreamt by a sleeping tramp.
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his… appetite,” says the communist parasite, here memorably played by the robust Norbert Lichý as the narcoleptic Kopriva.
He’s one of six actors that has gathered in a claustrophobic, impossibly grimy Czech theater (the location is not disclosed, but appears to have been filmed in Brno) to rehearse the play, led by an enthusiastic director (Jaromír Dulava) wearing dangly antennae and a flip-down goggles that turn into bug eyes.
Dulava’s Director – who also stars on stage as Mr. Cricket – is more than nonplussed with his group of nonprofessional actors, which includes his bored wife Ružena (Kamila Magálova) as Mrs. Cricket, her lover Václav (Jan Budař) as Sabre Wasp, tutu-wearing ballerina Jituška (Ivana Uhlířová) as Larva, and Borovička (Jiří Lábus) as Dung Beetle.
As a sadsack who can’t speak his lines without stuttering, Lábus (for local audiences, one of the best-known actors in the ensemble) spends most of the movie in a filthy toilet playing with a beetle in a cigar box and a giant ball of dung. Uhlírová’s ballerina keeps imagining insects overtaking her surroundings, scenes recreated with live bugs for our pleasure.
The original play is a grubby metaphor that brings the struggle of man into the world of insects, and the perfectly squalid recreation (in many senses) by these actors is a fitting tribute.
But just to show that they’re not above the material, Švankmajer inserts his crew into Hymz (Insect) during behind-the-scenes-like sequences that depict how the shots were achieved: actress Uhlírová fills her mouth with fake vomit, crew members roll around balls of dung and vacuum up ants, and Švankmajer himself handles live cockroaches, waiting to drop them into a bottle of (non-alcoholic) beer.
When directors break the fourth wall in films, it’s usually to remind us that we are only watching a movie. In Hmyz (Insect), Švankmajer intends the exact opposite: the filth and grime that covers the screen during the movie we are watching extended also into its production, and presumably also into the audience watching the film. Don’t look too closely at that cinemagoer in the seat next to you.
It’s an insightful look into Švankmajer’s psyche, and a fitting theme that can be transcribed to all of his work. And as a bonus, we get a nifty peek at the creation of movie; there’s a lot less of the director’s trademark stop-motion animation than usual here, but there’s a wealth of wild props, costumes, and practical effects.