Insect (Hmyz) (2018)

Insect (Hmyz) first published by EyeforFilm

Entomology has long played a part in Bohemian allegorical art. In Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa famously wakes up to discover that he had been transformed into a monstrous insect, and then must vainly try to renegotiate his place in a household that now proves less than loving. Seven years later, The Insect Play, written by Karel and Josef Čapek, premièred on stage in Brno, presenting a tramp’s dream of anthropomorphised insects. This Czech entomological tradition is resurrected in Insect (Hmyz), which Jan Švankmajer has said will be his last film, as the writer/director restages ( a restaging of) the Čapek brothers’ play in his own inimitable way. 

To the original play’s misanthropic fantasy Švankmajer adds a generous spray of deconstruction, repeatedly pulling back the curtain and breaking the fourth wall as he places the appetitive foibles and barely suppressed violence of Czech society under his microscope. It opens not just with a man, Karel (Jirí Lábus), rushing out of his apartment clutching a script and wearing a bug suit, but also with the sight of two cameramen tripping over themselves as they try to keep up with Karel while filming. Karel and others are racing to get to a rehearsal of The Insect Play. After the opening credits, we see Švankmajer himself, seated in a studio and directing the film crew around him as he delivers – in fits and starts – a formal ‘foreword’ to Insect. Here he describes the Čapeks’ decision to bow to popular pressure and to rewrite their play with a more optimistic ending as the “day the chickenshit was probably born” – an attitude which he now calls “the main Czech national attribute.” Promising no salutary or improving lesson in his own film, Švankmajer concludes: “The only good answer to the cruelty of life is the scorn of imagination, as one Czech decadent poet would put it.” 

A bug’s life (and death)

Then we’re off, transported to a rehearsal space, and to six bumbling, amateurish actors there to perform the rôles of insects in the Čapeks’ satirical drama, while also experiencing insect-heavy hallucinations, and themselves metamorphosing, to different degrees, into the critters that they are playing. These grotesque thespians offer the surreal merger of live action and stop motion that we have now come to expect as the trademark of Švankamjer’s features, from Alice (1988) through Faust (1994), Conspirators of Pleasure (1996), Little Otik (2000) and Lunacy (2005) to Surviving Life (2010). Any sense that remains of reality in this scenario is further undermined by a constant cutting away to Švankmajer directing the cast, or to the crew producing the model effects and animated inserts, or to the actors describing their dreams. The play’s pettily officious director (Jaromír Dulava), who is also taking the part of Mr Cricket alongside his openly adulterous wife Rose (Kamila Magálova), complains, as the film’s director has already done, of the Čapeks’ upbeat revision of their own work, but agrees to go along with the playwrights’ final, less pessimistic version. Of course, by the time we eventually reach that ending (or something vaguely similar), it has been so ironised by all these explicit references to its compromised nature, and by what has happened between the actors (not all of whom have survived), that any sweetness it might appear to contain comes throughly soured. 

In short, Insect is a self-consuming product, always at pains to expose its artifice as it offers behind-the-scenes commentary on both its own and the play’s making. Through these sophisticated layerings of different – and differently mediated – truths, there scuttle farcical observations on human greed, lust, cruelty and vindictiveness (as well as several bodily functions and emissions), all buried beneath bourgeois mannerisms and between the script’s lines. The film is funny and disorienting, even if its pacing can be a bit on the slow side, and its metatheatrical, metacinematic jokes end up, through sheer repetition, being overplayed and underwhelming. Still, as a work that seems to be suggesting at once that all the world is a stage, and that on it our most primitive urges are our true directors, Insect is as good a summation of Švankmajer’s absurd, anarchic, oneiric obsessions as we are likely to get. Also, it is a masterclass in on-set bug wrangling.

© Anton Bitel