Keswick Film Club - Reviews - Surviving Life (Theory and Practice)

Reviews - Surviving Life (Theory and Practice)

Surviving Life (Theory and Practice)

Reviewed By John Stakes

Surviving Life (Theory and Practice)
Surviving Life (Theory and Practice)
Or should it be “Surviving Two Lives”? Last Sunday’s film proved to be very much an Eastern European oddity which took us from the innermost mind of its Czeck director Jan Svankmajer to the outer limits of his imagination.

With his tongue, the first of many on display, but in his case firmly in his cheek, this director tells us in a prologue (which is a regular feature of his recent films apparently) that his decision to fuse cut-out animation from photos with live-action segments was prompted by his inability to raise sufficient cash to make a feature live-action film. And in the same Hitchcockian nod Svankmajer also tells us that his prologue here is merely to prolong the film to bring it up to a respectable length. It’s already clear we are now in the realms of the unconventional.

And there’s more than a whiff of Monty Python (Terry Gilliam) in his animation which includes an affectionate swipe at both Freud and Yung in this curious outing from one of cinema’s more self-indulgent and downright loopy film makers. Svankmajer’s chief inspiration for this weird and wonderful offering is his own fertile imagination which apparently becomes intensely kaleidoscopic whenever he falls asleep though this offering proved to be one of his more restrained outpourings. So what’s his screenplay or rather dreamplay all about?

Who knows? Eugene (Vaclav Helsus) is a twenty-five years married (but childless) late middle-aged and bored office worker with an overbearing but loving wife. In his dreams the married Eugene meets the woman of his dreams, a woman in red no less whose name and other aspects of her life change every time he revisits his dream.

Nothing very unusual so far as where else better can a man pursue his fantasies with impunity you might ask? But Eugene wishes to delve deeper into his subconscious to pursue this relationship and consults a psychoanalyst. From this point onwards his fantasies become more alive to him than reality and he even manages to get the object of his desires pregnant! By this stage she has also revealed herself to have the same name as his mother, who, after all, is a man’s best friend in the world of psychoanalysts.

There’s no doubting that a creative talent is at work here and there’s a lot of fun as Svankmajer’s imaginative juices get to work despite his limited budget. After all he’s been indulging himself in this way since the 1960s and now aged 77 he shows no signs of slowing down. Freud and Jung for example can be seen bickering with each other from their portraits appropriately hanging in the psychoanalyst’s office when Eugene seeks help, and, unsurprisingly but comically and inventively, phallic and other erotic visuals abound to keep our interest up as it were.

Eugene’s exploration of his inner self becomes complicated by his wife’s sleuthing through which she discovers the route into her husband’s fantasies. Is any psychological sense to be made of these forays into the subconscious? For this reviewer a reserved….yes! Reminiscent of the final scene of “Psycho” it can now be revealed that at age four Eugene suffered a horrifying trauma, in witnessing the death of his parents, his father by accident, his mother by suicide. His mother allowed Eugene to live when she could have taken him with her. In order to make his way in life Eugene blotted out this terrible memory. By actively seeking in later life to delve more deeply into what had started out as seemingly superficial male fantasising, he unlocks his selective amnesia to reveal the horrors of his childhood. The woman in red became the mother she had always been. His dance with her became his swim for survival. Disturbing, horrifyingly comic perhaps, but somehow never depressing.

“Surviving Life” first saw the light of day when it was entered (but not in competition) in the 67th, 2010 Venice Film Festival and later crossed the Channel to London. For most of the time it is funny, engaging, pleasingly rude and inventive. Just to see the psychoanalytical world in turmoil over Eugene’s antics appears oddly reassuring.

In lesser hands this oddball opus could have come across simply as bemusedly weird but Svankmajer’s visual flair and humour elevate his film from the incongruous to the pleasingly idiosyncratic. He likes to compare himself with David Lynch. “We fish in the same pond” whatever that means. However it was well worth braving the freezing elements as its Keswick audience warmed to the experience, influenced perhaps by the knowledge that they were unlikely to face anything comparable during the rest of 2012!

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