Sunday, December 24, 2006

Movies: Stumped.

Little Otik, a 2000 film from Czech surrealist auteur Jan Svankmajer, is one of those nearly unclassifiable films. It is a horror flick, a dark comedy, a surrealist parable, and an updating of a children's fairy tale all in one.

The plot of Little Otik is simple and devastating. The begins with a young Czech couple, Karel (who looks like an Eastern European Mark Mothersbaugh) and Bozena (who bears no resemblance to Mark Mothersbaugh) finding out that they will not be able to have children. This seems like a minor disappointment Karel, but the news totally destroys Bozena. She plunges into a deep depression, obsessing over the child she will never have. Karel, in an effort to get his wife's mind off of the slowness of his sperm and barrenness of her womb, purchases a weekend cabin in the country.

Sadly, the cabin does not improve Bozena's condition. Karel, in an attempt to please her, carves a tree stump he dug up from the property into the rough shape of the baby boy. Unfortunately, the mock-baby works too well. Bozena begins to care for it as if it were a real baby boy. Karel, worried his now clearly insane wife will take the baby home and start introducing it to folks, convinces her to leave their "son" in the country where they can visit it on weekends. Appealing to her obsession, he warns her that the sudden appearance of the child would be taken as evidence that they kidnapped (stump-napped) the boy. Again, Bozena runs with this, faking eight months of pregnancy to fool the neighbors. (It is only eight months because she grows impatient and decides their "son" will be a premature birth.) Strangely, despite the fact that Bozena is only faking it, she gets morning sickness and the like, as if she were really pregnant. In one particular poignant scene, she refuses he husband's sexual advances because she's worried about crushing her baby.

Eventually, the child is "born" and Bozena moves into the country cabin to spend more time with her tree stump. Karel visits every weekend and, one horrific day, finds Otik, the stump son, nursing at Bozena's breast. Not pretend nursing, but nursing nursing. Bozena's love for Otik has made him come alive. He still looks exactly like a roughly shaped tree stump, but he cries, and moves, and eats. Mostly eats.

The problem with Otik is that, for an inanimate object, the boy sure puts away the grub. At first he's content to eat heroic portions of formula, but eventually he devours the family cat. His parents find a well worked over feline corpse next to the crib. A few months after that, a nosy mailman becomes Otik food.

As Otik grows and his appetites become more monstrous, his parents must decide whether or not to destroy their uncanny off-spring.

Little Otik is not your traditional horror flick. It's closest American equivalent is something like Edward Scissorhands, with its premise of the fantastic suddenly spilling into everyday life. Only, in this case, the magical figure at the center of the story is a whole sinister presence. In true surrealist form, Svankmajer shots the film with lavish detail (the surrealist always presented their dream-scapes and fantasies with crisp detail – not blurry edges and wavy lines for them). Only Wim Winders can invest the emotionless blocks of the modern European city with such loving beauty. The characters are carefully drawn and even the minor characters get serious time to develop. The SFX used to bring Otik to live are primitive by the CGI standards of contemporary American movies, but Svankmajer uses them to emphasize the alien otherness of the monster child. I could easily imagine some American filmmaker creating a seamless, "better" Otik and the effect would actually have less punch.

The pace of the film is a bit slow, though this may be more due to the fact that I suspect the film was not created as a traditional horror flick, and is instead a dark update of a traditional Czech fairy tale (which is read to viewers in the film, so you'll be up to speed on the cultural references). Rather than building suspense, the film is more interested in following its own fairy tale logic to its conclusion. Consequently, we get the horrific without getting the scares. If you're prepared for this going into the flick, it isn't so bad. If, however, you crave suspense, you and this flick are not playing at the same game.

Like They Came Back, Little Otik is a movie that uses horror elements, but ultimately is not really a horror film. It is smart, creepy, moving, and brilliant – but it is not scary. Still, it is a great flick and worth watching on its own terms. Using Land Conditions as Described in the Beaufort Wind Force Scale Movie Rating System, the ranking system that's taking the nation by storm, I give Little Otik an excellent "widespread structural damage."

3 comments:

Casey C said...

I watched this months ago and it still makes my brain hurt!

cattleworks said...

"Stumped"
ha ha ha

I've heard of Svankmajer but have never seen any of his films.
This sounds really interesting.
Reminds me of ERASERHEAD, with its dream logic.

And Netflix carries it!
Excellent!

CRwM said...

Casey C: Thanks for stoppin' by. I clicked through to your site and it looks great.

Screamin' Cattleworks: I didn't think of the Eraserhead comparison, but it is an apt one. I've seen a few Svankie flicks, but mostly I find them too surreal - even dream logic is usually too rigid for him. But this one be nice. A good place to start if you've never seen any of his films.