Little Otik
review by Emma French, 28 December 2001

Little Otik is the latest surreal offering from the Czech writer/director Jan Švankmajer. In a blend of live action and animation, it tells the curious story, based upon Czech folklore, of a childless couple who, in their desperation, convince themselves that a tree trunk is their baby.  In an ingenious twist, the mother nurtures the stump until it does take on a fearsome and voracious life of its own as Little Otik. Unfortunately, the film does not live up to its early premise and promise.

The opening scenes, powerful and hallucinatory, effectively lull the audience into a suspension of disbelief. The pressure upon the couple, Bozena (Veronika Žilková) and Karel (Jan Hartl) to secure their genetic inheritance is everywhere, and Bozena’s obsession with other people’s children is delineated well. By the time Karel digs up the anthropomorphic trunk at their new cottage and presents it to his wife, the viewer is inclined to believe that this really could be mistaken for an infant, as she lovingly bathes and dresses it. It is rarely clear at which points Bozena knows she is faking her  “pregnancy” and “labour”, and when she is truly experiencing the sensations. By the time Karel comes to collect her from her cottage hideout, where she is pretending to be in hospital giving birth, the deception has become all too real.  They have successfully given life to a grotesque wood-child that suckles jerkily at her breast with twig limbs and a hideous knothole mouth. The scene marks a high point in both the animation and the narrative.

Once the couple returns to their city apartment, carefully hiding their monstrous progeny under wraps, both their lives and the film rapidly go south. The claustrophobia of the setting is oppressive, with its nosy neighbours, child-molesting cleaner and the object of his affections, a watchful young girl, Alzbetka (Kristina Adamková in her first big screen outing) who soon works out the couple’s terrible secret. Both the girl and the young couple make unusually unattractive film leads. The neurotic maternal instinct of Bozena becomes a crass parody of both infertility and motherhood. Weak-chinned, bespectacled Karel is hopelessly inert and pathetic, despite his recognition that they have spawned a murderous and unnatural beast. Alzbetka’s amusing detective work is replaced, once she solves the mystery, with a blind devotion to Little Otik, for which she is willing to sacrifice her parents, that is ugly and implausible. Rejection of psychological veracity for magic realism is difficult to manage in either film or literature without alienation of the audience, and the project fails here.

Such a black farce merits a swifter pace, and the film becomes overly repetitive in both its plotting and imagery. There are sporadic funny moments: spoof TV advertisements for products including “the inferno”, an iron that irons itself, and Little Otik’s consumption of a fatally persistent social worker, but they are too few. An unpleasant oral fixation invades the film at every turn. Thematically coherent at first in the context of the baby’s prodigious appetite, repeated close-ups of the little girl’s mouth as she eats or reads her fairy tale aloud are simply unnerving. Though the film mercilessly pillories the old man, Mr. Zlabek, who lusts after Alzbetka, endless shots from his perspective of her naked thighs simply implicate the audience in his desires. One wonders what point is being made by such moments, and then one stops caring.

Švankmajer himself appears to have tired of his theme by the end, as Little Otik is locked in a cellar, with few glimpses permitted of him as he grows, our final moments with him enacted off-screen. The cartoon fairy tale that punctuates the narrative issues too many spoilers to the audience. It is a superfluity rather than an enhancement of the action. Though this film has interesting and thought-provoking qualities, its contempt for both human and wooden life leaves the audience as hungry for some meat on the bones of its characters as Little Otik.

Written and
Directed by:

Jan Švankmajer

 Jan Hartl
Veronika Žilková
Kristina Adamcová
Jaroslava Kretschmerová
Pavel Nový

N R - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.




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