At 66, cutting-edge experimental artist Jan Svankmajer is still one of the world’s great animators, whose droll sense of humor leaves nothing untouched. “Otesanek,” a live-action, modern-dress retelling of a Czech folk tale about a childless couple who go against nature to have a baby, is an unsettling piece of filmmaking whose grimly vivid images are guaranteed to give impressionable viewers nightmares. At the same time, the theme has an oddly modern ring that forces auds to make real-life associations. Though the quantity of animation is small, it is central to pic’s comic spookiness, always eliciting startled laughter. The adult theme makes this not an easy film to slot, but pic should win some theatrical play through quality alone before resurfacing on smaller screens.
Bozena (Veronika Zilkova) and Karel (Jan Hartl) long to have a baby; so does little Alzbetka (Kristina Adamcova), their next-door neighbor in need of a playmate. One day, Karel uproots a tree stump that looks like a child and, after he’s whittled it into a baby-like form, Bozena’s runaway maternal desires bring it to life (via animators Bedrich Glaser and Martin Kublak).
Little Otik (as they name it) has an insatiable appetite, devouring first the cat and then the postman. In desperation, Karel locks the monstrous tree-child in the cellar to starve it to death, but unbeknownst to them Alzbetka adopts the changeling. She feeds Otik in secret, offering him the building’s residents when leftovers aren’t enough.
Many familiar hallmarks of Svankmajer’s work turn up here, from grotesque close-ups of food and an aggressive lack of sentimentality, to the theme of appropriating the divine power of creation. In the best surrealist tradition, his continual juxtaposition of normal human urges (like eating or having a baby) with their apocalyptic results keeps viewers off balance.
Apart from baby Otik, who looks like a wooden teddy bear with flaying roots for limbs, the human cast makes up a hilarious monster gallery in itself. Adamcova limns an Alzbetka no pedophile would want to cross: with cold cleverness, she makes quick work of a dirty old man upstairs. Pic is edited with deadpan comic timing by Marie Zemanova.