Rotterdam 2018: Jan Svankmajer’s Insect

On Film / The Daily — Jan 30, 2018

“In what he describes as a ‘forward’ to this film, director Jan Svankmajer—talking straight to the camera and fluffing his lines repeatedly—admits that he doesn’t actually know what this, apparently his final picture, is about.” So begins Wendy Ide in Screen. “Insect, which was crowdfunded via Indiegogo, is the result of what the veteran animator and filmmaker describes as a process akin to ‘automatic writing,’ and brings a meta twist to the 1922 satirical work, The Insect Play, by the brothers Karel and Josef Capek.”

As Roberto Oggiano explains at Cineuropa, Insect “is a hybrid film that works on various levels: a theatrical company prepares a play with two endings—one is optimistic, the other is pessimistic, the making of the film and the making of the making of. . . . Every actor in the film plays three parts, and each actor is also an insect. No one is exempt from the continuous metamorphosis that we witness, while the film’s surrealism also has a palliative function, [even if] ridiculing power only serves to alleviate its crushing weight.”

“It’s not an adaptation of From the Life of the Insects [aka The Insect Play],” Svankmajer reiterates, talking to Martin Kudlac at Cineuropa. He’s “mentioned Franz Kafka mainly in terms of grasping the film imaginatively, contrary to the allegorical image conjured up by the Capek brothers. Metamorphosis occurs in the film when an actor embodies his or her character perfectly. I think the Capek brothers’ juvenile misanthropy is usable. They were attacked by critics at the time because of it, and they re-wrote the ending under pressure, eventually opting for a more optimistic outcome. I play on their meagerness in the film.”

Updates, 2/3: “Lesser works by great directors needn’t diminish long-standing reputations, so calling Jan Svankmajer’s Insect a disappointment in no way weakens the master’s position as a key proponent of surrealist cinema,” writes Jay Weissberg for Variety. “However, there’s no getting around the fact that the film is a minor entry in a glorious career, despite having all the raw ingredients for a classic Svankmajer stew.”

Insect “constantly shifts between the stage and lots of behind-the-scenes action, showing Svankmajer and his dedicated crew shooting the film,” writes Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter. “For those interested in how, for instance, the Czech director works with fake vomit or can make a giant ball of dung chase someone across a room, there is much to enjoy here, although some viewers may grow tired of the nonstop mayhem.”

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