Surviving Life

An amiably goofy yarn about a man so in love with the literal woman of his dreams.

Helmer Jan Svankmajer pops up at the start of live-action/animation mixture “Surviving Life” to complain lugubriously that there’s no money in dreams, his film’s subject. However, this accessible, entertaining work may rep his most commercial in years. An amiably goofy yarn about a man so in love with the literal woman of his dreams he seeks help to sleep more effectively, pic feels more like a mainstream Czech comedy than the helmer’s usual darker fare. Purists may grumble that Svankmajer’s dumbed down, but more generous souls will be happy to see him still surviving and evolving at age 76.

In an unnamed contempo Czech city, middle-aged desk jockey Evzen (Vaclav Helsus) dreams of a beautiful younger woman (Klara Issova), who introduces herself as Eva and flirts with him in the streets, while bizarre dream people (naked women with chicken heads and vice versa, a creepy old woman played by Emilia Dosekova) bustle around them. When Evzen wakes up, he longs to go back to sleep and re-enter the dream, but keeps his desires a secret from his wife, Milada (Zuzanna Kronerova). His doctor (Frantisek Polata) advises that Evzen needs a shrink, not sleeping aids.

Watched over by animated portraits of Freud and Jung who occasionally scrap with each other, Evzen goes into therapy with femme Dr. Holubova (Daniela Bakerova) who starts digging into his traumatic childhood memories. Meanwhile, in the dream world, the object of Evzen’s affection insists she has a different name — first Eliza, then Emily, and so on — every time he meets her. Their affair progresses, but interruptions from her young son Petr (Jakub Frydrych), her ex-husband Milan (also played by Helsus, with a toupee), and the aforementioned creepy crone keep running interference.

Roughly 40% of what’s onscreen consists of closeup live-action footage of actors acting, with the rest animated. Although writer-helmer-production designer Svankmajer utilizes a bit of his trademark stop-motion technique to create oneiric, characteristically fleshy images of disembodied tongues wrestling and the like, the bulk of the animation here consists of 2D photographic cutouts. For Anglophone auds especially, the effect is highly reminiscent of the work Terry Gilliam did back in the 1960s for “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” with a dash of German Expressionist Max Ernst, which is no bad thing really.

For all the grotesquerie on display (and there’s hardly anything here as disturbing as Svankmajer’s imagery in 1988’s “Alice”), pic feels much lighter in tone than the helmer’s last few films, such as “Lunacy,” “Little Otik” or “Conspirators of Pleasure.” Take away some of the wackier flights of fancy, and this could almost pass for a film by, say, Jan Hrebejk in a whimsical mood.

Ensemble’s generally broad but well-timed thesping enhances the pic’s playfully aimless atmosphere, with Helsus and Issova demonstrating believable chemistry as the central-May/late-October romantic leads. Tech credits are sturdy, with inventive surround sound design a standout.

Surviving Life

Czech Republic-Slovakia

  • Production: An Athanor Film Prod. Co. production, in association with C-Ga Film, Ceska Televize, Universal Prod. Partners, with the support of Ren Corporation, d - rights, Aura, Yury and Design Co., the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic, Ministry of Culture of the Slovak Republic, Media, Eurimages. (International sales: Athanor Film Prod., Prague) Produced by Jaromir Kallista, Juraj Galvanek, Jaroslav Kucera, Petr Komrzy, Vit Komrzy. Co-producers, Juraj Galvanek, Jaroslav Kucera, Vít Komrzy, Petr Komrzy. Directed, written by Jan Svankmajer.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Jan Ruzicka, Juraj Galvanek; editor, Marie Zemanova; music, Alexandr Glazunov, Jan Kalinov; production designer, Svankmajer; costume designer, Veronika Hruba; sound (Dolby Digital Surround Ex), Ivo Spalj; re-recording mixers, Spalj, Petr Lendel; animators, Martin Kublak, Eva Jakoubkova, Jaroslav Mrazek; line producers, Vera Ferdova, Jana Bebrova, Jiri Kostyr; associate producers, Keith Griffiths, Simon Field; assistant director, Martin Valent. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (noncompeting), Sept. 6, 2010. Running time: 109 MIN.
  • With: With: Vaclav Helsus, Klara Issova, Zuzanna Kronerova, Daniela Bakerova, Emilia Dosekova, Marcel Nemec, Frantisek Polata, Jakub Frydrych, Jan Pocepicky, Jana Ol'hova, Noavel Novy, Karel Brozek, Miroslav Vrba, Ludmila Hanulakova, Lenka Dvorska, Vaclav Jezek.