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That which devours you: Otesanek.

Otesanek film review

Stop motion animation and Czech folklore is a winning combination that only Jan Svankmajer could think of. His movie Otesanek is not only a stop motion film; it also uses traditional film making and plays with the montage style. When it comes to animation it combines clay, pictures and even drawings, he used all that he knew when creating the film and its result is a well composed and unique movie.

The plot is simple and yet powerful, like all folklore stories tend to be. If we resume it without giving spoilers it will go like this: A couple that is unable to conceive gets a trunk shaped like a baby, it becomes alive and starts demanding to be fed. The film is complex and has a lot of themes that got developed because of the yarning the couple has. It is a story that matches perfectly the style that Svankmajer is known for: gruesome and grotesque, even weird could be a word to describe it, with his dark palettes and an edition that makes the pacing of the movie not fall into the standard. At this point it must be clear that this is no fairy tale.

A cautionary tale about desires and compulsions.

Veronila Zilkova is the actress who plays the role of the mother, and she does an amazing job: her expressions, the way she talks and even moves gives her character what it needs to be perceived as a believable one. While in the traditional folklore tale, the couple gets happy when the trunk becomes alive, in the film Jan created, Bozena Haráková is the one who became obsessed about otesánek. Karel Horák, who is the husband and is played by Jan Hartl, takes this trunk to his wife as a playful token while they are on a small trip, and once she has it, she starts to treat it like a real child, concerning him. She elaborates a plan, to make the whole neighborhood believe that she is pregnant, so she can bring Otesánek to the house. In a way, Jan is telling us that the desire Bozena has and all what she does is what gives life to the piece of wood.

Food, hunger, and even cannibalism are recurring themes in Jan’s works, and the ones that focus on it always show a desire for consumption that can’t be satisfied. It’s as if this desire were devouring the subjects instead of being the other way around. And that is precisely one of the main themes in this film, in which the female led is consumed by the desire of having children, a thing that is presented from the beginning with a montage that presents pictures of babies and sounds of them crying. Both parents desire this, we can see him imagining people in line with a street seller that sells babies by weight, and he sees himself in that fantasy thus comparing the infants with food.

But not only the parents in the movie present compulsions, Jan uses the neighbors to add more layers into the message. Most of the main characters are driven by their desires which makes them get apart from reality in one way or another. We could say that Otesánek becomes a materialization of the real destruction this kind of behavior can cause and how this escalates. The message is so powerful that Svankjamer does not need to rely on the plot of the story, he reveals the ending before it happens through the daughter of the neighbors. She finds out Otesánek is not a human baby and remembers having read the actual folklore story so goes to her house and reads it to herself while reading it to the viewers.

There shouldn't be surprises for the spectators after this; the fact that the wood baby will end up eating some of the characters must be expected, and it is, but the tension then relies on how everything will happen. Svankjamer understands how to use this element to his favor and plays with the viewers as much as he can, because he wants to take his characters to their limits before they meet their fate. In a way, he also plays with the audience's desire, because he knows it will appear as soon as he predicts the story's ending.

If you haven’t seen Otesánek, and are willing to let him show you at what end can your desires take you, I strongly recommend you watch this amazing film.

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