In a time of international turmoil, Svankmajer comes out with a film about what it takes to survive. The current state of independent film production looms over the whole picture. The director begins with a personal introduction explaining that he conceived the piece as being shot in live-action, but ended up making it in stop-motion with photographs of actors, as he couldn't raise the money for a full shoot. And it is clearly very low-budget. Most of the actors probably completed their roles in a day or two, being photographed in various poses, recording their dialog, and then getting animated in post. The live-action is mostly limited to close-ups of the actors' faces to avoid the need for sets and costumes. Svankmajer plays the lead Eugene himself.
Eugene lives in a small apartment with his wife and works a drudging, unspecified job sitting in front of a computer. The two of them have been getting by, and he thinks he's reasonably happy, but he's being troubled by strange dreams about a beautiful woman whose name keeps changing. As his relationship with the woman develops from night to night, Eugene begins visiting a psychoanalyst and researching dream manipulation to try and determine the significance of his nocturnal experiences. Meanwhile a strange figure in the dream world warns him darkly of the consequences of pursuing the mysterious woman.
This may sound like another "character goes crazy while dreams blur with reality," story but it quickly establishes itself as something very different. Svankmajer makes the dream world and reality equally surreal. They are clearly distinguishable, but both worlds feature bizarre elements that are treated as "normal". For example, Eugene's boss has a pet man on a leash with a bulldog for a head, and some events and objects inexplicably transfer themselves from one reality to the other without anyone noticing. The reality and dream form an intersecting puzzle that slowly unravels the secret and forgotten troubles that are creating Eugene's dreams.
This is Svankmajer's most humane film. It is touching, beautiful and devastating in ways that none of his earlier work has been. Where before he has been often cynical and critical of humanity, this entire piece is straightforward and emotionally honest. In the end, it's a film about what it takes for a sensitive person to survive in an eternally brutal world. The final scene is going to stay with you for a very long time.
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