With the boldly bizarre, darkly funny but poignant “Little Otik” prodigious Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer once again creates his unique blend of live-action and animation, this time to spin a cautionary tale about the dangers of being consumed by one’s deepest desires. It is also a comment on the mindlessness of the consumer culture and how the routines of middle-class existence rob one’s imagination.
That’s a lot of territory for what is essentially an old folk tale that embodies the myth of Adam and Eve with a touch of Faust, but Svankmajer has the knack of inviting the viewer to discover considerable meaning in his work. Indeed, Svankmajer evokes memories of “The Little Shop of Horrors” and, briefly, even “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” As an artist, Svankmajer belongs to a rich Eastern European tradition in animation and experimental cinema that views the universe as an absurd mechanism that grinds down the individual. He has said he views “Little Otik” as revealing the consequences of those who would rebel against fate and defy the natural order of life on this planet.
Bozena Horakova (Veronika Zilkova) and Karel Horak (Jan Hartl) are an ordinary couple who live in a small, old Prague apartment house. Bozena and Karel, an office worker, have just been told by a doctor that they are infertile, news that so devastates Bozena that she has a mental breakdown. Their neighbors, the Stadlers (Jaroslava Kretschmerova and Pavel Novy), urge them to invest in a vacation cottage in a forested area, hoping that a change of scenery will lift Bozena’s spirits. While clearing some trees, Karel comes upon a Mandrake-like root that he fashions into a doll for his depressed wife, who instantly regards it as the baby she longs for. Karel, who cares very much what people think, after much wrangling with his distraught wife, gets her to agree to leave the doll in an armoire and take it out only on their country sojourns. Yet once back in town, Bozena’s consuming desire to conceive drives her to make a series of nine pillows, each larger than the last, to simulate pregnancy.
At this point in the film, Svankmajer puts the viewer’s willingness to suspend disbelief to a severe test. Though Karel is cloddish, it’s still hard to accept that he would not try to get professional help for Bozena. Surely, psychotherapy, with the possibility of adoption to follow, would be worth a try. Yet just as the feeling that Svankmajer might better have set his film a century earlier emerges, he revs up the surreal elements of his story, and “Little Otik” takes off in a wholly captivating manner.
Throughout, Svankmajer is an acute observer of human nature. If Bozena has become obsessed and Karel overwhelmed, Mrs. Stadlerova remains a kindly, concerned neighbor while her husband, although he regards the Horaks as nice people, is essentially a beer-and-TV boor, mindlessly strict with his adolescent daughter Atzbetka (Kristina Adamcova), who turns out to be the film’s pivotal figure.
Bright, free-spirited and imaginative, Atzbetka is more aware of the surrounding goings-on than her elders. Early on she discovers Bozena’s pregnancy is a ruse but tells no one, and when she reads a folk tale in one of her books she realizes that it seems to be coming to life in her neighbors.
The cumulative impact of “Little Otik” is engrossing and provocative, and Svankmajer draws splendid ensemble performances across the board, with Adamcova remarkable in her portrayal of an adolescent caught in the throes of undergoing mind-boggling experiences she’s still too young to comprehend fully.
Svankmajer’s use of close-ups of people caught up in daily activities--such as brushing teeth--is deliberately repellent in effect, suggesting that those who fail to develop their imaginations are no more than animals.
“Little Otik” is too outre not to turn off some, but for those who can go the increasingly macabre distance, its sheer power to confound can be enthralling.
Unrated. Times guidelines. Complex adult themes, some violence; too intense for children.
Veronika Zilkova ... Bozena Horakova
Jan Hartl ... Karel Horak
Jaroslava Kretschmerova ... Mrs. Stadlerova
Pavel Novy ... Frantisek Stadler
Kristina Adamcova ... Alzbetka Stadlerova
A Zeitgeist Films release of an Athanor Film Production Co. presentation in co-production with Illuminations Films in association with Filmfour (London) and Barrandov Biografia a.s. and Helena Uldrichova (Prague). Writer-director Jan Svankmajer. Producer Jaromir Kallista. Cinematographer Juraj Galvanek. Editor Marie Zemanova. Animators Bedrich Glaser and Martin Kublak. Art directors Eva Svankmajerova and Jan Svankmajer.
Exclusively through Thursday at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.