Little Otik may be Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer’s most straightforward film yet, which doesn’t mean that it isn’t deeply weird, just minimally obscure. Based on a fairy tale, it tells the story of a barren couple who adopt a tree trunk that bears a grotesque resemblance to a human child. The woman is ecstatic about the situation, while the husband, somewhat saner, realizes that the “baby” will have to be kept hidden from the prying neighbors. Complications ensue when Otik, as the dotty parents have dubbed the inanimate log, actually comes to life and develops a rapacious appetite for human flesh, growing bigger after each grisly meal.
Though the plot outline suggests a variation on Little Shop of Horrors, Svankmajer’s film is more genuinely sinister and more determinedly misanthropic. Unlike his previous feature, Conspirators of Pleasure (1996), which seemed sympathetic, in an amused manner, to the imaginative contortions of sexual need, Otik is imbued with a harsher sort of humor and more than a little disgust. It’s recurring motif is eating, depicted as the repulsive act of ignoble creatures slurping up disgusting swill with the same infantile greed that Otik displays when chomping on the mailman. Svankmajer’s approach here is oppressively intimate — and the queasy meals, the constant close-ups and the tendency of the characters to address themselves directly to the camera somewhat overwhelm the satiric point that Otik’s mother has been driven mad by the societal pressures on her to have a child.
Still, Svankmajer is as sui generis as David Lynch or Guy Maddin, and he owns the strangeness that oozes from his films. Little Otik may be one of his lesser efforts (and could have, at more than two hours, benefited from some cutting), but it’s also a good introduction to his peculiar vision, uneasily observant and richly inventive.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.