In Lunacy, for perhaps the first time, the great Czech artist Jan Svankmajer speaks onscreen in one of his films. And of course it is to disparage his work. Lunacy, says this mild graybeard, is an artless horror film for an artless world, "an infantile tribute" to Poe and DeSade.
Who but Svankmajer, with his history of brilliantly wedding the surreal to the visceral, could actually raise expectations with such a description? After the obsessive study of obsession that was his Conspirators of Pleasure, and the mordant fairy tale Little Otik, Svankmajer offers this eponymously apt phantasmagoria. It's a depiction, he tells us, of the extremes of complete freedom and utter repression, and of the worst-of-both-worlds compromise that comprises "the madhouse we live in today."
DeSade takes the form of the Marquis, a gimlet-eyed fop who appears as a savior to the film's hapless hero, young Jean Berlot. Stranded in the countryside and tormented by nightmares of confinement, Berlot is spirited away in the peruke-wearing Marquis' horse-drawn carriage; surreally, fellow travelers embark via adjacent motorcoach. At the Marquis' walled estate, Jean witnesses a blasphemous debauch, after which the Marquis persuades him to take a cure at a little asylum named Charendon.
Freedom, we learn, is relative. To the Marquis, it's expressed in a spittle-flecked indictment of God, and in the power to give inmates the run of the asylum after jailing its oppressive governors. Those authorities, of course, see things differently, and in characteristic Svankmajer fashion the film climaxes when something monstrous escapes from the cellar. One reflects on the twin legacies of Soviet-era repression and post-Cold War license.
Lunacy consists mostly of the live-action work Svankmajer has employed for years, rather than the groundbreaking stop-motion animation -- of vegetables, meat, puppets -- with which he made his name starting in the 1960s. In Lunacy, little of the animation is integrated with the live footage. Yet recurring animated interludes featuring disembodied cattle tongues, eyeballs and beefsteaks -- running riot as they breach stone walls, infiltrate marble statuary, lap beer from steins, reanimate cow skulls -- reify madness as much as does the chicken-ridden asylum, where inmates do "art therapy" by spattering a bound, naked woman with paint.
Svankmajer's ironic regard peaks when the abusive, unhinged Marquis (a funny-scary Jan Tríska) requests our sympathy. His mother, you see, was buried alive during his youth, and the poor fellow is still trying to get over it.
Pavel Liska, as Jean, drags himself through Lunacy with the look of a whipped farm animal; "Wake up!" he's continually admonished by authority figures. Told that inmates long ago commandeered the asylum, Jean's earnest response is: "Surely someone must have noticed." In Czech, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., Oct. 20. Melwood