IFFR 2011: Jan Svankmajer's SURVIVING LIFE review!
A tragic yet frequently very funny look at the human mind through both dreams and the practice of psycho-analysis, "Surviving Life" is not only a treat for Svankmajer's fans but almost a general crowdpleaser, as the audience rating of 4.1 out of 5 (after four sold-out screenings) proves.
So what is it about? Read on...
Eugene is an old clerk, seemingly happy in his marriage and boring office job. But this changes when he starts to have very vivid and bizarre dreams featuring a beautiful woman dressed in red.
Instead of trying to get rid of these dreams, Eugene wants to experience MORE of them, so he enlists the help of a psychoanalyst to try and explain what's happening. Their efforts are successful and Eugene gets to spend more time with the red woman, but he dangerously risks becoming addicted to his dreams and the alternate life he lives within them...
People unfamiliar with Svankmajer's unusual brand of filmmaking and humour need look no further than the opening minutes of "Surviving Life" to experience both. In them, Svankmajer appears in person, apologizing for the use of stop-motion animation throughout the movie. It's a choice not made for artistic reasons according to him but, as he explains, "the production ran out of money and it was too expensive to do it as a real film".
And this remark sets the tone for the rest of the movie, which shows a character on the road to self-destruction in a story that would be almost unbearably tragic if it was not told in such a joyfully tongue-in-cheek way.
The main character Eugene is played by Jan Svankmajer himself, or to be more precise by animated photographs of him. He anchors the audience to normalcy in both worlds, which are at times as abstract as Gilliam's animations for Monty Python were.
Despite that the story is surprisingly coherent and focused. Eugene's search for his dreamworld is plausible enough in itself and a fun puzzle to solve. This is Eugene's tale, front and center: the imaginative visuals are important but never "run away" with the film.
It would have been easy for Svankmajer to show the real-life world as real-life and the dreamworld as his signature surreal stop-motion animation, but he does something more interesting: right from the very start he mixes his styles for both worlds. This allows for Eugene's perception of the real-world to be sometimes as weird as his dreams are, and in this way Svankmajer can play with parallel images without them looking forced or obvious.
An example: featured heavily in the plot are Eugene's visits to a psychoanalyst, which are fun to follow if you know something about the theories of Freud and Jung. Ideas like "Oedipus Complex", "super-ego", "anima" and such are used and it helps if you know what is being talked about. But if you don't, the sessions don't become boring courtesy of the portraits of Freud and Jung on the wall behind the doctor, constantly booing, cheering and even fighting each other whenever their work get mentioned. This happens even though the sessions take place in the "real" world.
But Svankmajer of course challenges the very concept of reality. For what is real in a film anyway, especially an animated one? Both worlds in "Surviving Life" look equally surreal and creative, and more like dreams than the ultra-detailed environments in Christopher Nolan's "Inception" ever did.
In the end, you tend to choose the reality you perceive as feeling the most real. It makes Eugene's journey and choice a lot harder, but also more rewarding to follow.
Weird without being alienating, educated without being haughty and heartfelt without being (too) sentimental, "Surviving Life" is a psychoanalytically guided tour through the dreams of a distressed individual.
At times quite poignant and at times wickedly funny.
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