The lucid surrealism of Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer is one of cinema’s most eerie spectacles. Svankmajer’s juxtaposition of rough-hewn stop-motion animation with live-action mise-en-scene creates a queasy, uneven frame rate—the slight lurch of the animation grinding against the live-action footage never lets the audience settle into one or the other.
Unlike most films that composite practical or digital animation, and live-action into the same frame, Svankmajer cuts rapidly between them to create the illusion that they coexist. His renderings of fairy and folk tales have an unsentimental absurdism, in the plain-spoken tradition of folklore. In films like Alice and Little Otik he favors the squarish 4:3 aspect ratio and symmetrical compositions, his actors often staring directly into the camera in frontal shots.
Emaciated staircases hang uneasily over endless gray voids; teetering stacks of books overrun the cloistered chambers of a library.
Svankmajer’s cinema is fascinated by the grotesque; his animation brings offal, meat, bones, eyes, and tongues to squirming life. In a 2013 piece for Offscreen, Rachel Webb Jekanowski places Svankmajer’s 2005 film Lunacy in the tradition of Mikhail Bakhtin’s “grotesque body,” one component of Bakhtin’s criticism on Renaissance writer François Rabelais. The grotesque body, in short, “embraces the materiality and baseness of the human body with transgressing boundaries and upending hierarchies.” It devours and it distends—and it defies.
Svankmajer was on my mind as I played Tarsier’s Little Nightmares, a macabre platformer about Six, a young girl making her way through the knotted bowels of a steamship called the Maw. Early in development, before being picked up by publisher Bandai Namco, the game was titled Hunger: a more direct name, but without the implications of scale and horror wrapped into “Little Nightmares.”
The Maw is a mammoth space whose purpose is not immediately clear: in a move straight from Inside and Limbo developers Playdead’s playbook, Tarsier allow the player to discover her environment with as little contextual information as possible. In fact nearly two-thirds of the game goes by before the Maw is even revealed to be a sea vessel, in a grand camera move that pulls further and further from the sun-dappled exterior of the ship, the sea churning at its sides, Six dwarfed by the sheer enormity of it all.
Six’s ostensible fragility is communicated with her downturned head, bare feet, and yellow rain slicker, and reinforced by the oddly oversized nature of the Maw. Each end of the architectural spectrum—tiny and gigantic—is pushed to grotesque extremes. Emaciated staircases hang uneasily over endless gray voids; teetering stacks of books overrun the cloistered chambers of a library. The Maw is in itself a body, a vast chambered thing of grotesque organs. The camera washes Six’s surroundings with thick grain, hazy focus, and slight chromatic aberration, all intentionally rendered artifacts of a real-life film camera. The quality of light has a romantic thickness to it, its casual beauty counterpointing the horror of the Maw.
The grotesque embraces the materiality and baseness of the human body by transgressing boundaries and upending hierarchies
The bric-a-brac set dressing is reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jenuet and Marc Caro’s 1991 masterpiece of clutter Delicatessen. Jenuet and Caro depict the manic bustle of life in a ramshackle apartment building with a madcap sense of humor and an eye for the quotidian details of each tenant’s living space, from the botanical theme in a quiet cellist’s apartment to the doilies and dusty portraits of an old woman’s home.
The cramped belly of the Maw, which houses everything from waste dumps to kitchens and workshops, has a similar architectural character. Little Nightmares is structured around escaping the clutches of four main antagonists: a thing with freakishly long arms and a outsized, bandage-wrapped head; a group of fetid, Leatherface-esque chefs; a shipload of obese cannibals; and finally a faceless, weightless geisha. Each enemy’s environment is cluttered with books, knick-knacks, cuts of meat, cages, mannequins, wardrobes, dirty dishes, and every manner of grime.
Little Nightmares offers the player a degree of foreground movement; Six can move forward and backward as well as left and right. Tarsier build this into their mise-en-scene, cannily designing environments that mask their purpose behind obtrusive cruft and beguiling spatial lines: the Maw feels hostile in its very bones. It is not the clean, linear world of the classic platformer, ripe for domination, but a thing to be navigated.
In one bravura setpiece, Six must evade the Maw’s ravenous, bloated passengers, dancing between bottles of wine and grasping hands on an endlessly long dinner table and then sprinting through the ship’s guest quarters as her pursuers pile atop each other into a wave of flesh. In the exaggerated droop and sag of the guests’ faces, their bodies as hulking mounds thrust forward over piles of raw meat and glistening sausage, we can see Jan Svankmajer.
Svankmajer’s cinema is fascinated by the grotesque; his animation brings offal, meat, bones, eyes, and tongues to squirming life
His 1992 short Food is a grotesque triptych that turns breakfast, lunch, and dinner into rituals of jubilant self-destruction and autocannibalism. Unlike body-centric work like In My Skin, Marina De Van’s definitive 2002 study of self-harm as a form of reconnecting with the flesh, Food itself offers no obvious personal, cultural, or political context to hook an interpretation onto; the text exists in its own uncanny bubble. Svankmajer mixes live-action stop-motion, with traditional model-based stop-motion to accentuate the distance he draws between “body” and “self”—the diners quite happily tuck into meals of their own hands, breasts, and penises.
With images like a line of diners waiting to eagerly enact a bizarre rite of abuse on each other, Svankmajer perverts the ritual of the restaurant meal, makes it unreal and strange, to better expose what he sees as its inherent absurdity.
Like Little Nightmares, Food is not about eating: it is about being consumed by a system larger than yourself. Six finds her power through consuming, and gains enough strength in the end to destroy her pursuers. The arrayed guests at the Maw’s sadistic banquet are mad with fervid hunger; Six consumes to survive.
The journey Six takes through the Maw is a sort of vomiting: first she is dislodged from its bowels and then makes her way up, up, up, until finally, having embraced her nature as a thing which devours, the snarled corridors of the ship unwind, and Six simply walks up the long, straight path to freedom.
In this way Tarsier subvert Six’s ostensible vulnerability. Like the recurring red-coated dwarf in Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg’s mystic 1973 British giallo, Six’s small stature does not denote helplessness, but danger. She is a pathogen in the body of the oppressor.
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