Film Reviews:

Little Otik / Otesánek

aka Greedy Guts

(Jan Svankmajer, Czech Republic/UK/Japan, 2000)

Little Otik poster Czech surrealist Svankmajer's latest trip is by far his longest but is probably, paradoxically, his most accessible. It details a year in the lives of an infertile couple, Karel and his wife Bozena. Bozena longs for a child but cannot have children. Attempting to lighten the tense atmosphere, Karel digs up a tree stump and fashions it into a baby boy and presents it to his wife. However, in her desperate state of mind she takes the lifeless log as the real thing. Karel tries to reason with Bozena but when he sees the wooden effigy come to life they both eventually realise that in spite of its origins they can treat this strange creature as their own first born. However, the inquisitive young daughter of the next door neighbours has been following their every move and is surprised to discover that the sequence of events mirrors exactly those in an old Czech fairytale. One that is as disturbing as it is dramatic.

Perhaps best known for the short film format, this is only Svankmajer's fourth feature length film, and for some reason the Czech director has decided to tell the story over 125 minutes. This is at least 30 minutes in excess of what the script requires and there's a certain amount of repetition and needless detail. At the same time, the stop motion animation that has distinguished Svankmajer's career is minimal, and kept largely to bringing the titular creature to life. There is a very brief glimpse of some CGI - the first time I at least have seen the technology in a Svankmajer film - used seemingly to add realism to the shot of little Otik breast feeding. Otherwise, the familiar jerky stop motion animation is perfectly suited to bringing to life the darker aspects of the script and succeeds in creating an uncomfortable edge that would simply not exist if CGI were used throughout. Both food and eating play a significant role in the plot and Svankmajer delights in portraying the dreary meals that the neighbours eat every day.

Typical of the director's work, the characters are dramatic archetypes. However, the important lead roles of Karel and Bozena are pulled of well by Jan Hartl and Veronika Zilková, crucially managing to strike a difficult balance between the eccentric and the sympathetic. The ensemble supporting cast are all very good, their characters having clearly defined roles within the story that are not allowed to stray from their functions. Again the director gets the very best from roles that would, in most other director's hands, be pure caricature. Little Otik has largely been promoted as a comedy drama. This is misleading. Anyone new to Svankmajer's work is likely to find it a dark comedy at least, or a bizarre horror story at the other end of the spectrum. Like all of the director's work, it skirts a fine line between the hilarious and the disturbing, and although the overtly 'surrealist' moments are fewer than usual, this latest film from the 69 year old Czech still retains much of his unique sensibilities to make it a worthwhile (albeit way too long) entry into his canon. 7/10

Rob Dyer (December 2001)

See also:

Conspirators of Pleasure

A-Z of Film Reviews