Jan Švankmajer’s latest feels looser, breezier than much of his previous work, as if he’s realised that with that many unsettling gems in his back catalogue he could afford to kick back for once and muck about a bit. Of course, Švankmajer mucking about still involves a cavalcade of grotesque imagery, twisted psychology, looming dread and suicide, but that’s Czech surrealists for you.
It’s the tale of Evzen (Václav Helsus), a middle-aged office worker, who lets his marriage and job go to hell as he pursues the literal girl of his dreams (Klára Issová). His desire for more romantic REM time leads to all manner of aberrant behaviour, and to a psychoanalyst who tries, after a fashion, to make sense of Evzen’s nocturnal adventures. Eventually the dreams reveal a meaning buried in his childhood, and Evzen has to choose between his conscious and subconscious lives.
That summary makes the film sound a lot more straightforward than it is, but from the beginning Švankmajer deliberately blurs and bleeds the lines between Evzen’s waking and sleeping lives. The same imagery permeates both (snakes, cockerel heads, a strange public lottery) but also the same nightmarish frustration, where shifting identities, deception and cross purposes continually thwart Evzen’s desires, and even the simplest of transactions involves a baffling ordeal.
Surviving Life begins winningly with a cut-out Švankmajer explaining why he has been reduced to this form of animation: he wanted to make a proper live action film but decided that since cut-outs don’t need to be fed or looked after, it just made budgetary sense to do it this way. He warns that this is a comedy, but we won’t find it very funny. It ends with one of the most affecting and troubling conclusions I’ve seen in cinema. In between there’s too much indulgence in dreamy business, in recurring imagery and repeated scenes. The Pythonesque cut-outs and office worker/dream girl plot bring Gilliam to mind, but this is a much more claustrophobic, hermetic world than he would offer. It feels dated, too, like an artefact from the 70s or before, when Freud and Jung were the cutting edge of psychoanalysis, and knowledge of lucid dreaming is sought out in antiquarian bookshops rather than Google.
Still, it’s eye-popping, disarming and playful, with a brisker pace than you might expect from this director. The cut-out style (broken up occasionally by Švankmajer’s recurring trope of animated food) seems to have brought out his inner adolescent, and much of Surviving Life resembles a scurrilous old underground comic, full of sex and monsters and barbs aimed at The Man, man. You may find your patience for all this wearing thin a good 20 minutes or so before his does, but that finale will haunt me for some time…