Plant horror and meat love

Rachael Allen on trauma and storytelling in the films of Jan Švankmajer and Eva Švankmajerová

By Rachael Allen

The opening scenes of Jan Švankmajer and Eva Švankmajerová’s Otesánek (Little Otik, 2000) are an assault of disconcerting noise and imagery. The credits run through photographs of chubby infants soundtracked by giggling and crying, like an advert, cutting to an image of more babies bobbing face-down in a wooden basin in a European town square, like apples. They are fished out with a net, wrapped in newspaper and displayed on a wooden plank as if for sale. A morbid preoccupation with babies underpins, the viewer is forewarned, this surrealist version of a nineteenth-century fairytale that chimes with contemporary anxieties around fertility (one recent study found that sperm counts in the US and Europe have halved in past 40 years).

A childless couple named Jan and Božena dig up a child-shaped tree stump and raise it as their son. The madness prompted by unsatisfied desire is expressed in the film’s surrealism: Božena fakes pregnancy with home-made pillows numbered one-to-nine to match a pregnancy; eats gherkins covered in whipped cream to feign cravings and morning sickness; dresses it when it ‘arrives’ in white cardigans and bonnets, bathes it, reads to it, feeds it. The knobs and curls of the root become a bellybutton or a mouth; nappy cream is rubbed into a wrinkled hole; in one scene of particular plant horror, we see Božena in virginal white as the trunk suckles roughly at her breast.

Scenes of feeding and eating are at the centre of the film’s horror. When Otík comes to life, it is discovered to have an insatiable appetite: it chews on its mother’s hair, pulling hard as though to scalp her, and eats a postal worker, leaving a splayed pink corpse by its white cot. This food horror is a feature of the films of Jan Švankmajer (on which he often collaborated with his wife, the surrealist painter Eva Švankmajerová): in Flora (1989), a woman with a body made of vegetables decomposes on a hospital bed, feeding into a strain of thinking going back to the myth of Daphne’s transformation into a laurel tree that aligns the female body with vegetal life. In Meat Love (1989), two beefsteaks to come to life, flirt and dance with each other, come together on a bed of flour. Then they are fried and eaten.

A disgust around physical consumption recurs throughout Little Otík, as the once-cute clump of wood consumes everything in its path. Unchecked or easy desire is presented as revolting: a man chewing chocolates dribbles milky spit; a girl plunges her face into a bowl of gruel while complaining about her loneliness. A recurring scene features a young girl attempting to avoid an old man from whose pelvis extends an outstretched penis-hand, after which the pre-teen wearily tells those who don’t believe her that she is sick of being undressed by the eyes of a paedophile. These damaged people are all set in the absurdist fictional framework that Švankmajer orchestrates to relate these very real occurrences. This is a political surrealism, showing how the difficult experiences around mental ill-health, motherhood and child abuse are so often dismissed by society as exaggerations or delusions.

The harm caused by paedophilia, toxic masculinities or the unfulfilled desire for a child is rendered bizarre in Švankmajer’s work not for aesthetic value or cheap titillation but to reflect the narratives that human beings create in order to structure the extraordinary hurt and pain in their lives. These films show how the unreal can make sense of the real. Švankmajer’s dark surrealism doesn’t feel like escapism, or stylish treatment, but true horror.  

Online exclusive published on 6 November 2019