This is the last film from Czech director Jan Svankmajer, and he exits the world of film in a typically weird way, much like his first feature film which was a very creepy rendition of Alice in Wonderland. Throughout his career he has made excellent use of stop motion and ‘clay-mation’ techniques, but here his focus is more conventional – though this isn’t to say that there is a lack of the aforementioned techniques. By using this concept sparingly, the impact increases when it does appear.
Taking a meta-approach, the director himself introduces the film as he says, “books can have a foreword – why not films?” This isn’t the only time this behind the scenes approach is used. The film often leaves the play being rehearsed as actors and other crew members behind the scenes, including the director himself, give their thoughts, many talking about their dreams, or lack of dreams. This obviously correlates to the film, as it is often dream-like, and on occasion nightmarish.
We never truly know if the insects we see are real. On one occasion we see those behind the scenes propelling what could or could not be a scene of the play, while the actor involved is seemingly unaware that a scene is being filmed or if he is in danger. Jan has always used stop motion techniques to add a creepy element to his films, and he uses it well here.
After the introduction, we meet an unnamed director who is determined to create his own version of a play created by Karel and Josef Capek, known for many plays during the 1920’s in post-World-War-I Czechoslovakia. ‘The Picture of an Insect’s Life’ though is their best known and most analysed and criticised work, and landed them in trouble when Hitler rose to power – Josef died in a concentration camp in 1945, while his brother had died unbeknownst to the Gestapo, who arrived at his door to find his body. Given these events, this film is much more multi-layered that one would first think.
Obvious is the similarities pointed out between insects and humans. Both operate under a hierarchy, and much like ants many people shuffle towards to work without much thought, like an an ant carrying a leaf. A wasp holds power over most of the insect world, much like those in power in our society, and it is made clear when the director and his wife (as crickets) perform scene after scene that seems to point out that procreating when living down on the ladder is not an easy feat. We even meet a parasite, who again asserts this notion by angrily telling Mr Cricket that hoarding food is taking away opportunities to eat for those even lower down the ladder. The commentary on class in society isn’t overtly obvious but it is certainly apparent, and comparisons to society in Russia at the time was what landed them the brothers in trouble, despite the metaphorical and allegorical writing. This commentary of course also relates to modern society.
During a scene where the director himself is talking to the camera, he discusses the idea when the brothers were deciding whether to end the film in an optimistic or pessimistic note given the political atmosphere that was enveloping Europe. He ponders whether to use the original ending or the revised optimistic ending. The director within the film wonders the same thing. Unfortunately, this seemingly important aspect of the play isn’t addressed, leaving a hole in the concept of the entire movie. Other aspects that are discussed by the director in the ‘foreword’, such as a lack of psychology within the play, also remain unaddressed. Though perhaps this is the point, throwing viewers off given the amateur actors that are a part of the project and their contrasting personalities.
All this this isn’t to say the film is bad, far from it. It is filled with dark comedy as the amateur actors are knitting, sleeping, and generally ignoring everything the director says. They eventually get to the stage, wearing insect costumes that look truly ridiculous, where more laughs arrive as the director sternly asks his actors to repeat scenes, mirroring many current directors. The lack of skill of these actors is endlessly amusing.
Disappointing is the ending, as the visions (or reality) of insects rise in intensity but don’t reach a boiling point. This results in a lackluster ending that again doesn’t address the endings that the writers of the play dealt with, not to mention some elements mentioned in the film by Jan himself. Despite this, Insects is an entertaining film that is endlessly weird and funny, but unfortunately doesn’t deliver on some points that it seemed to hint at. Jan Svankmajer’s last film is far from perfect, but it is also a very entertaining film that, much like all of his films, is hard to compare to anything else. It is easily a film that could be watched many times. This self proclaimed surrealist artist has certainly created a sense of surrealism within this movie that is endlessly fascinating.
Two short of a sixer. If this had delivered on the political concepts that it seemed to promise, not to mention the rise of insects, the end result would have been much more powerful.
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