Lesser works by great directors needn’t diminish long-standing reputations, so calling Jan Švankmajer’s “Insect” a disappointment in no way weakens the master’s position as a key proponent of surrealist cinema. 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 Švankmajer stew. Based on the 1922 satirical play “Pictures From the Insects’ Life” by the Čapek brothers, in which performers dressed as bugs expose the thin line between human and insect behavior, the film takes a meta approach, with the director himself acting as commentator (as in “Surviving Life”) to the story of a provincial amateur production. Peppered with brief shots of animators and technicians achieving the amusing visual tricks for which Švankmajer is best known, this long-gestating project will inevitably see modest festival exposure, but otherwise is most likely to crop up only at career retrospectives.
Maybe the current rise of far-right governments and smugly complacent strongmen means we’ll be seeing a return to the kinds of metaphorical satires that made the East European New Wave so invigoratingly iconoclastic, yet “Insect” generally plays like a minor 1960s entry in this now old-fashioned though once vital genre. Given that the film’s origins lie in a short story the director wrote in 1970 but was unable to develop due to censorship, the sensation of watching something from another era is perhaps inevitable, though surely unintended. Addressing the viewer, Švankmajer admits he’s directed the story as a work of animation, with stylized acting, no psychology and minimal camera movements, yet it’s unclear what audiences are meant to get out of it all: There’s nothing disturbing or discomforting, and if he’d hoped to explore why the Čapek brothers switched to an optimistic ending following harsh criticism of the original misanthropic finale, that examination isn’t apparent.
In a provincial town, an uptight Director (Jaromir Dulava) brings together a bunch of amateurs to rehearse the second act of the Čapek play. He’s also taking on the role of Mr. Cricket, while his wife Růžena (Kamila Magálová) will play Mrs. Cricket. Her amorous attentions toward younger actor Václav (Jan Budař), playing the murderous Sabre Wasp, are on full display, which could partly explain the Director’s short fuse. Much of the film’s surrealist elements revolve around Borovička (Jiří Lábus), who becomes more and more like his character the Dung Beetle, and obese Kopřiva (Norbert Lichý) as the Parasite. Bewigged Jituška (Ivana Uhlířová), cast as the Larva, mostly just knits and screams when she witnesses bizarre behavior, such as Kopřiva happily swilling down a cockroach floating in his beer bottle.
It’s not clear how much admiration Švankmajer has for the source material, given the way he has his performers make mincemeat of the play: Is their aping of insect characteristics really saying something profound about similarities between animals and humans, or is it surrealism as humorous fantasy rather than societal critique? Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” published seven years before the Čapek play, is unsurprisingly meant as a reference point, and Švankmajer even works in some of Ladislav Čelakovský’s classic translation of “King Lear,” yet the film plays as gently comical farce with no bite.
The greatest interest comes in moments when we see how the director’s signature stop-motion special effects are made, from a large slimy tongue to an enormous dung ball. Watching these scenes makes one yearn for a general Švankmajer “Making Of” doc covering his whole career, but that fascination lies in artistic and technical aspects divorced from this particular film. Addressing the camera, the director speaks about editing as a series of dream moments, since only in cinema and dreams can space and time be bridged in the blink of an eye. While it’s not an original thought, it does make one wish for a more in-depth disquisition on Švankmajer’s use of editing to further his surrealist passions. Music, with smatterings of Rimsky-Korsakov and Smetana, help to give thematic cohesion to some of the theater scenes.