You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Insect’

Jan Švankmajer's minor work is meta approach to a 1920s satirical play designed to expose the thin line between insect and human behavior.

Jan Švankmajer
Kamila Magálová, Ivana Uhlířová, Jan Budař, Jaromir Dulava, Jiří Lábus, Norbert Lichý, Pavel Nový, Jan Švankmajer. (Czech dialogue)

1 hour 37 minutes

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5783476/reference

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.

Film Review: 'Insect'

Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (Deep Focus), Jan. 26, 2018. Original title: Hmyz.

Production: (Czech Republic-Slovakia) An Athanor Film Prod. Co., PubRes, Ceska Televize production. (International sales: Athanor, Slaný, Czech Republic.) Producer: Jaromír Kallista. Co-producers: Zuzana Mistríková, Lubica Orechovská, Thomas Campbell Jackson, Andrew Hawkins.

Crew: Director, writer: Jan Švankmajer. Camera (color): Jan Růžička, Adam Oľha. Editor: Jan Daňhel. Animation: Martin Kublák, Ondřej Fleislebr, Bedřich Glaser.

With: Kamila Magálová, Ivana Uhlířová, Jan Budař, Jaromir Dulava, Jiří Lábus, Norbert Lichý, Pavel Nový, Jan Švankmajer. (Czech dialogue)

More Film

  • NEW YORK, NY – JUNE, 24:

    LGBTQ Stars Honored at Variety’s Power of Pride Celebration

    New York City felt the full power of pride on Monday, as Variety celebrated its inaugural issue devoted to the annual recognition of LGBTQ people worldwide. At an intimate gathering at lower east side Manhattan hotel The Orchid, rooftop bar Mr. Purple hosted Variety’s cover stars and luminaries for cocktails and the unveiling of the [...]

  • Joel Silver Exits Silver Pictures

    Joel Silver Exits Silver Pictures

    Top Hollywood producer Joel Silver has exited his production company Silver Pictures, Variety has confirmed. “Joel Silver recently indicated that he intends to leave Silver Pictures and go out on his own,” Hal Sadoff, a former ICM Partners agent who joined Silver Pictures several years ago as CEO, said in a statement. “We are working [...]

  • Billy Eichner Power of Pride Variety

    Billy Eichner on Taylor Swift's 'Calm Down' Backlash

    When Taylor Swift released her “You Need to Calm Down” music video, it seemed like every member of the LGBTQ in Hollywood was included — except for Billy Eichner. “I’m still not gay enough for Taylor Swift — or too gay — I don’t know what it is,” Eichner joked at Variety’s Power of Pride [...]

  • Ewen Bremner as Alan McGee in

    Danny Boyle-Produced ‘Creation Stories’ Adds Jason Isaacs, Steven Berkoff

    Jason Isaacs, Steven Berkoff and a host of other new names have signed on for “Creation Stories,” the film being exec-produced by Danny Boyle about Creation Records co-founder Alan McGee. The producers also unveiled the first shots of Ewen Bremner (“Trainspotting”) as the music mogul. Production is underway on the Irvine Welsh-penned project, with “Lock, [...]

  • 'Annabelle Comes Home' Review: This Grab

    Film Review: 'Annabelle Comes Home'

    In a country that should probably think about renaming itself the American Entertainment State, fan culture now produces an obsessive level of pop scholasticism, one that can parse the rules and details of movies and TV shows as if they were fine points of law. In a review of a horror movie, I once called [...]

  • Gugu Mbatha-Raw A Wrinkle in Time

    Racing Green Pictures to Launch With Gugu Mbatha-Raw Historical Drama 'Seacole' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Producer Billy Peterson has formed a new production company, Racing Green Pictures, and announced production on “Seacole,” his first feature with the banner. The film will star Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Belle”) and Sam Worthington (“Avatar”). It centers on a Mary Seacole, a pioneering Jamaican nurse who cared for wounded British soldiers during the Crimean War and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content