Surviving Life (2011), Jan Švankmajer’s latest cinematic work, offers little in the way of surprises to those familiar with his unique directorial style, yet still manages to succeed in creating a psychoanalytical masterpiece through a combination of striking visuals and an endearing story of love and fantasy.
Taking on the role of the protagonist himself, Švankmajer plays Eugene; a seemingly content, middle-aged office worker and husband. However, following a number of fantastical and surreal dreams about a lady dressed in red, Eugene begins to pursue the dream world as an escape from his mundane reality. In order to spend more time in his fantasy realm, he seeks out a psychoanalyst to assist him in accessing his dreams on a permanent basis, drawing him into an alternate reality and exacerbating his obsession with the lady in red.
In creating this world on screen, Švankmajer makes heavy use of stop-motion animation, utilising the technique to such an extent that he even appears on screen at the beginning to apologise for its constant presence. In fact, Švankmajer’s ‘performance’ is made up entirely out of still pictures of the director brought to life by stop-motion animation. This, however, is one of the key elements, which contributes to the overall success that is Surviving Life, as the distinct aesthetic is ultimately one the film’s most charming asset.
With a Terry Gilliam-esque playfulness, the story is brought to life with a sense of fun that perfectly offsets the underlying atmosphere of tragedy that bubbles under the surface throughout proceedings. Although, if Svanjmajer is to be believed, the decision behind Surviving Life’s aesthetic came about as a matter of financial constraints as opposed to an artist flourish, as he recently explained, “The production ran out of money and it was too expensive to do it as a real film.”
Whether or not this is to be believed is somewhat irrelevant, as the resulting effect has produced one of the most inventive and memorable films of 2011. Švankmajer’s Surviving Life takes on the theme of dream worlds and alternate realities in a fashion that is far superior to that of Christopher Nolan’s good, yet painfully overrated Inception (2010) and other films of such ilk, exemplifying the manner by which striking dreamscapes and realities can be created just as beautifully on a shoestring budget as with a multi-million dollar bank balance.