2000, NR, 127 min. Directed by Jan Svankmajer. Starring Pavel Novy, Jaroslava Kretschmerová, Kristina Adamcová, Veronika Zilková, Jan Hartl.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 15, 2002
The puling little scamp at the heart of this brazenly bizarre new film by Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer (Alice, Faust) isn't your average bassinet brat. Hewn from the wormy stump of an oak tree felled by his father Karel (Hartl), he has a mass of twigs for fingers and a dark and puckered puss. Some kids are naughty; but this is the first I've seen that's knotty. Karel and his wife Bozena (Zilkova) are eager for a child of their own, but his seed apparently lacks the crampons to find purchase in her icy soil. As the film opens, Karel, leans out his office window and, hallucinating, spies a baby-vendor in the street hoisting newborns out of a barrel of brine with a fishing net and wrapping them in sodden newspaper for the assembled queue. His wife, whose biological stopwatch is booming with a force equal to that of the Union of Concerned Scientists' nuclear holocaust clock, is increasingly frantic and demanding, and when Karel presents her with the “gift” of a lacquered and sanded oaken babe, she takes to it with hysterical non-partum ecstasy, swaddling it in a blanket and insisting they care for l'il stumpy as they would a real child. The new dad is understandably disturbed by his wife's incipient madness, and quickly attempts to get rid of the thing (kindling!), but faster than you can say Zero Population Growth Bozena has informed the neighbors she's expecting and takes to warming a lichen-based formula on the stove. To this already disturbing mix Svankmajer adds a sexually curious neighbor girl, the lecherous tenant next door, and the strange appetites of Little Otik himself. The result is a sublime, blacker-than-night comic meditation on the insistent demands of a youngster's love and the complete loss of control inherent in starting a family. Eventually, Otik develops a taste for more than breast milk, devouring whole breasts and their owners with them. Insatiable isn't the word for it, omnivorous is. Svankmajer uses stop-motion animation and various optical tricks to show us Otik's rapid development, a technique he's used before in films such as his Alice in Wonderland pastiche Alice, and the herky-jerky movements of this malformed wooden boy make the character look like some hellish marionette gone awry. The Pinocchio allusion is apt, too: Not only does Otik want to be a real boy, he also wants to be the only boy around (having eaten all the competition). Hartl's bespectacled and glum face is astonishingly expressive, and the link between this harried pop and Jack Nance's character in David Lynch's Eraserhead is unmistakable (there's a direct correlation between the uneasy chiaroscuro in Lynch's most famous film and the subtly off-kilter color palette of Little Otik -- both burn with the insistent unease of a sheet-soaking nightmare). Exquisitely ghastly but no less amusing for it, Little Otik should be required viewing for prospective parents still sitting on the spermatazoan fence; after all, you're going to need a good sense of humor, aren't you?