Customer Review

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Svankmajer fans will want this movie, 12 Feb. 2004
This review is from: Little Otik [VHS] [2001] (VHS Tape)
Alice is my favourite of Svankmajer's full length films, but this is goood to have too.
In Czech, this movie is called Otesánek, which means "The little hewn one". It takes the name from a Czech fairy tale, in which a tree stump roughly carved into the shape of a baby comes to life. The wooden baby rapidly grows to have a voracious appetite and turns into a terrifying monster, only to be eventually defeated by a little old lady who grows cabbages. But this is not a movie for children.
In the film, Bozena is a woman distraught by her sterility following a miscarriage. Babies are imagined everywhere - being sold like carp or coming out of watermelons. At their summerhouse, her husband Karel digs up a tree-stump with features that suggest a child, and he carves it to shape and varnishes it. Bozena starts madly to treat it as a real child. Unable to dissuade her in normal terms, Karel humours her by saying she can't take just turn up at home with a baby because people would think she had stolen it. So Bozena makes 9 cushions to fake a pregnancy, so that she can take the Otesánek home after 9 months. Karel finds himself increasingly drawn in to maintaining the pretence of pregancy for neighbours and work colleagues. Eventually Bozena fakes labour, and is concealed for a week with her Otesánek before bringing home the "baby". Karel finds himself surrounded by neighbourly celebrations for his fatherhood, and feels forced to say he has a boy and calls it Otik.
Animation breathes life into the Otesánek - leaving us initially unsure whether this for real or just in Bozena's imagination. Bozena now creates the pretence of a real baby, and asks Karel for ever more extreme action to maintain the pretence and cover up the consequent disasters. Meanwhile the neighbour's chubby little girl, Alzbetka, is reading fairy-tales, and is of an age to be curious about the mating habits of humans. She sees more of what is going on than the adults around her. Starved of company of other children, she finds her own affection for the Otesánek, and tries to prevent it ending in the same way as in the fairy tale.
Alzbetka is a star - Svankmajer seems to have a talent for finding little girls who can act. There is much delightful social commentary on Czech life and upbringing - the working-class neighbours, the lecherous old man upstairs, the cabbage-growing nosy concierge, the boozy work colleagues, the inevitable attention of the authorities. The overt - but inexact - parallelism of the fairy tale and the film's own story is a beautiful structure that leaves one with sufficient uncertainty about what will happen. The goings-on are delightfully weird, and at times less than delightfully gory. There are many lovely comedic touches, such as the gynaecologist distracted in mid consultation.

There are a couple of slight disappointments in this film which knock a star off. The first is the Karel figure, who is tearing his hair out at the start of the film, and so has nowhere to go emotionally when the situation starts getting a lot worse; his act is repetitive and unconvincing. The second is that I really would like more animation, after all, that is JS's star turn. The film goes too long before we get more than about 10 seconds worth.
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