'Surviving Life' is an animated psychoanalytic romp, unlike anything else
Published: Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, November 13, 2012 00:11
It’s not often that a film can elicit simultaneous laughter, confusion, and empathy. And it is even more rare when it uses crude paper cutout animation to do it. But Surviving Life, a film from Czech animator Jan Švankmajer, does just that.
It's a self-proclaimed psychoanalytic comedy following the middle-aged Milan (Václav Helšus), a man obsessed with his dreams. He turns his back on everyday existence for the world of romance created by his subconscious, if he can manage to induce the dreams and live with the consequences of what they mean.
This film doesn’t do anything subtly. It opens with an introduction by Švankmajer, which he concedes functions solely to lengthen the film. In a style of animation calling attention to its own absurdity, Surviving Life utilizes the very psychoanalytic techniques it mocks in an effort to discuss the interaction of a character visiting his psychoanalyst. It is meta on the meta level, about a subject that has become virtually ineffable, especially on a visual level.
It features sessions between Milan and his psychoanalyst (Daniela Bakerová), in which portraits of Freud and other figures of 20th century psychology react to the discussion in poignant and comic ways. It is smartly self-aware in its treatment of dream and psychology, and what implications they have for the lives we lead.
Švankmajer draws a keen distinction between dream and reality. The dream world is one of abstracted motion, flights of fanciful grandeur and big ideas. It is the world of the stuttering cutout animation, where chickens have women’s breasts and every kiss gets applause from dismembered hands. Reality is about detail, felt intimately by all of the senses. Close-up, live action clips representative of reality break up the animated sequences, instilling doubt about the truth of the images. Dream conforms to its own rules—rules that are arbitrary and unpredictable, but nonetheless immutable. Reality is calculable and one-noted, but more burgeoning.
Surviving Life contains grotesquerie and nudity galore. But it also rings truths about desire and our ideal states of being. The chemistry among the characters is keenly felt, especially considering the inelegant format of the film. Surrealism is not everybody’s cup of tea, nor is psychoanalysis. But if you can swallow such things, this film is an interesting and effective combination of the two, complete with an emotional punch that’ll knock your socks off.