- Fear of a Queer Plant?
Theresa M. Kelley
Johns Hopkins University Press,
with drawings by Mathilde Roussel
Columbia University Press,
Jeffrey T. Nealon
Stanford University Press,
Jan Švankmajer and Eva Švankmajerová's 2000 surrealist film Otesánek (Little Otik), based on a Czech folktale of the same name, begins in a gynecologist's office, where Mrs. Hárakóva is in the midst of receiving the news of yet another negative pregnancy test. During this process, Mr. Hárakóva looks out the window: he sees a baby being spooned from a large tank, weighed, wrapped in paper, and sold like a fish to a pair of waiting hands. When the couple arrive home, dejected, he cuts into a watermelon: there is another baby inside. Bitterly disappointed by their lack of success at conception in the midst of a world apparently filled with pregnant women, the couple go to their country cabin to recuperate. Mr. Hárakóva, working in the garden, unearths a tree root that looks oddly human: as a gesture to lighten his wife's mood (what a gesture!), he trims and polishes it to look like a child, and presents it to her. Mrs. Hárakóva is, however, not so much lightened as obsessed. She begins to care for the root-baby as if it were a human infant, and [End Page 419] devises an elaborate ruse of belly-strapped pillows and strategic absences to nurture the pretense that she is about to give birth. Shortly after an elaborate fabrication of the "birth" of the child that is warmly celebrated by their Prague neighbors, the couple go back to the cabin. In one of the most extraordinary scenes in this generally extraordinary film, Mr. Hárakóva returns home from work to the cabin and finds Mrs. Hárakóva, virgin-mother radiant in a white dress and veil, holding the root-baby as if it were the Christ child, suckling him to her breast. A second later, the audience registers: the root-baby is suckling. The couple's obsessive desire for the root-baby, Otik, to be The Child has actually transformed him from plant fetish object to living mammalian being. Perhaps not surprisingly given his origins in the excessive desires of his mother and father, as lively Otik develops, he is revealed to have exceptional appetites. One day, the multiple bottles of formula brought to him by his exhausted parents are insufficient, and the bloody skeleton of the family cat is found next to his crib. As his rapid enlargement and exponential appetite become harder to conceal from the neighbors, the state authorities are called to check on his welfare. As a result, an unfortunate postal worker and social worker become his next meals. Eventually, as in the folktale, Otik also devours his parents; it is only when he breaks the taboo and eats a neighbor's prized cabbages (for Otik, closer to cannibalism) that he is put to death.
Otesánek can be read as a comment, at a moment of Czech incorporation into the European Union, on the excessive appetites of neoliberalism: the state postal and social workers are, literally, eaten by Otik as part of his unstoppable growth. More broadly, the film can also be read as a comment on the relationship between heterosexual reproduction and capitalist hunger: it is because of his parents' fetishistic desire for a child of "their own" that Otik comes to life. Once he is unleashed, he is insatiable, consuming everything and everyone around him. Indeed, in addition to Otik's appetites, there are repeated scenes of a dinner table in which a fairly conventional nuclear family is depicted as a body in the constant process of eating. This eating is eerily sexualized in the body of the pubes-cent girl, Alžbětka, who is obsessed with the strange goings-on of the family next door and, at the same time, coming to understand her own...