“Conspirators is actually a film about liberation, and about gaining a freedom.”–Jan Svankmajer explaining why he considered Conspirators his most Surrealistic film up to that point
DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer
FEATURING: Petr Meissel, Gabriela Wilhelmová, Barbora Hrzánová, Anna Wetlinská, Jirí Lábus, Pavel Nový
PLOT: A man enters a newsstand and furtively buys a pornographic magazine as the owner nods conspiratorially at him. At home, he leafs through the pages but is interrupted by the postwoman, who has him sign for a letter that simply reads “on Sunday.” Over the next several days the man constructs an elaborate chicken costume; meanwhile, the postwoman, his next door neighbor, the newsstand owner, and another couple are all involved in their own strange, surreptitious projects.
- Conspirators of Pleasure began life as a screenplay for a short written in 1970 but never filmed. That short would have told the parallel stories of the “chicken man” and his neighbor across the hall. Svankmajer resumed work on the project in 1996, thought of four more characters to include, and expanded the film to feature length.
- In 1975 Svankmajer wrote a (satirical?) essay entitled “The Future Belongs to Masturbation Machines.”
- Originally known for his stop-motion animated shorts, Conspirators was Svankmajer’s third feature film, and it continued a trend of having less and less animation in each successive film (there are only a few accent scenes here, which amount to about one minute of animation).
- The end credits list Sacher-Masoch, the , Freud, , and Bohuslav Brouk (a Czech psychoanalyst who wrote up a series of case studies about masturbatory practices) as having provided “professional expertise.”
- The are listed in the credits as “musical collaborators” (although the soundtrack is prerecorded classical music).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The man in a chicken suit doing a ritualistic (and sometimes literally animated) dance in front of a doll-like effigy tied to a chair.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Stop-motion submissive; dough-snorting; carp shrimping
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: We follow six people engaged in complicated, intensely personal fetishistic rituals; adding to the odd, voyeuristic atmosphere, there is no dialogue, other than what’s overheard in the background on television. Each of the conspirators crosses the others’ paths, but continue to work on their own private obsessions, until all of them appear to receive their ultimate gratification. Then, Jan Svankmajer launches us into a new stratosphere of strangeness at the finale, when the chickens come home to roost (so to speak).
Short clip from Conspirators of Pleasure
COMMENTS: Case study: a man, Eastern European, balding but fit and reasonably attractive, is obsessed with the frumpy older woman across the hall, and also with chickens. He attempts to distract himself with pornography, but his eye is inevitably drawn to the cabinet in the corner of his apartment. He travels to an antique store where he purchases umbrellas. He brings a live chicken to his neighbor’s apartment, whose throat she slits with pleasure. He collects the blood in a goblet and siphons it into a balloon. He then plucks and cooks the chicken, reserving the feathers, which he will use to cover a mask he sculpts from clay. He spies on his neighbor, and when she leaves her apartment he sneaks in and uses her sewing machine to fashion wings, and also steals her clothes. He packs a suitcase with dishes, the cooked chicken, his mask, the wings, and the balloon full of blood. He ties the suitcase, a life-sized doll, and a chair onto the top of his car and drives to the remote countryside. There, he ties the doll to a chair, gets in his chicken costume, and, wings spread wide, does a menacing dance before the effigy.
We presume that the subject gets some sort of erotic gratification out of this odd procedure. What else could motivate such precise, fetishistic behavior? When he spies on his neighbor, he catches a glimpse of her adjusting her white stocking. Inside her apartment his eyes light upon her bed, the impression of her head still on her pillow, on a stain on her sheets, on her bra that hangs over her television: all reminders of the lingering presence of an absent body. Once he has the doll bound, he carefully adjusts the hem of its dress so that a sliver of lace slip is showing. Every step is ultimately directed towards a sexual culmination, but what we observe is all the careful planning, the meticulous plotting for a future moment of pleasure. And although our subject’s processes may be the most elaborate of those we spy on, he is not the only one making bizarre preparations. His neighbor herself has only nipped out of her flat to buy candles for her dungeon. His postwoman is sneaking off to a corner to roll bits of bread into balls that she will put to strange uses later that night. The man he buys dirty magazines from is building a strange sex automaton in his home. A fellow he bumps into in the antique store is cutting the tails off ladies’ fox furs for an apparatus he is building in his shed, neglecting his newscaster wife who contents herself by collecting two large carp whose scales she loves to caress.
Svankmajer is a poet of the physical. As an animator, he is in love with objects—he loves bringing “things” to life. (Recall the moving slabs of meat and the socks that dig holes in the floorboard from Alice). It is curious that this is Svankmajer’s first “erotic” film, although it is less curious that his first erotic film treats people as objects, more than the other way around. There almost no nudity in Conspirators, and no explicit reference to genitals, but this is a most sensuous (as opposed to sensual) movie. Svankmajer focuses forcefully on nonsexual physical details: the way the postwoman clicks her pen and slides her finger across the page to indicate the correct spot to sign, while staring too intimately—conspiratorially—into the eyes of the recipient. Sound plays a crucial role in allowing us voyeurs to experience the carnality of the conspirator’s world: we listen to the trickle of chicken blood as it flows down the funnel with a final “slurp” as it is sucked into the balloon. Though we’ve never felt the sensation, watching the film we now sense what it must feel like to have a fish suck our toes. With no dialogue, the film gives us no insight into the characters’ bizarre behavior; the physical world is our only anchor. This film about sex is about as tactile as a movie can be, as we feel when a mustached man rolls various thumbtacks and furs across his naked body, to Mario Lanza’s ecstatic aria.
But, is the movie really about sex? If so, sex is a solitary pursuit, displaced from people to objects. Although the characters do have moments of fulfillment at the end, they are more involved in preparation for the big moment, in building their erotic devices, in enacting the elaborate rituals that will give their eventual orgasm meaning. Throughout most of the film, they are more concerned with creation than gratification. We can’t help but think that their incessant, obsessive building of things—particularly the chicken man, who sculpts in sticky clay—endears them to Svankmajer, their creator. The idea that lust is the spur, but art the end, could not be more explicitly conveyed than by what the chicken man does with his Penthouse magazine. He carefully rips it into strips, slathers these in glue, then affixes them to the chicken head mask so that it is covered in a collage of centerfolds. Breasts, lips and pubic hair are all jumbled together. Then, he covers them up entirely with chicken feathers so that they are completely invisible. No one but he will ever know that the sexual images are there, buried underneath a layer of artifice. Freud’s theory that art is a sublimation of the erotic urge could hardly be more elegantly expressed.
We never do learn why chicken man, or any of his fellows, engage in their weird behavior. It does not matter. Throughout the film some of them glance knowingly at others; although they can not possibly know that, for example, chicken man is buying umbrellas to make wings for his costume, they intuitively recognize the forbidden drives motivating their fellow conspirators, and feel compelled give a little nod of camaraderie. Of course, they cannot realize deep the conspiracy goes. Unbeknownst to them, they are all merely elements in a much grander design, manipulated and put into their place in the plot by a greater force. Svankmajer treats each of them like a cog in a bigger machine he is building, one whose final shape won’t be apparent until the film’s ending. As strange and enigmatic as Svankmajer’s surrealistic climax is, each of the characters has their carefully constructed part to play in creating the circular ending. Svankmajer’s essay on the erotic and ridiculous nature of creativity is funny, fascinating and, at the end, quite disturbing.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Svankmajer’s vision is much more than a surrealistic rendering of standard Freudian notions of repression and sublimation… the film coaxes the viewer into becoming a voyeur and tacit collaborator in these pseudo-pornographic scenarios.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“It’s agreeably witty and bizarre, but patience is required to sustain interest in its intricately oddball, non-verbalized story for nearly an hour-and-a-half.“–Renfreu Neff, Film Journal International (DVD)
IMDB LINK: Conspirators of Pleasure (1996)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The Exquisite Ecstasy and Agony of Jan Švankmajer’s Conspirators of Pleasure – Cerise Howard’s essay on the film for the June 2014 issue of “Senses of Cinema” focuses on the tactile nature of the film, but includes detailed background information and is one of the best sources of information about Conspirators online
The Surrealist Conspirator: An Interview With Jan Svankmajer – Interview conducted by Wendy Jackson of Animation World Network after the release of Conspirators
DVD INFO: Something is up with Svankmajer on DVD. Zeitgeist/Kino released Conspirators of Pleasure on DVD in 2000 (buy), and it has since gone out of print along with the rest of their Svankmajer catalog (except for Lunacy). No North American distributor picked up 2010’s Surviving Life (Theory and Practice). That leaves Lunacy and Alice (distributed by First Run) as the director’s only two features easily available in the USA. If you purchase a used DVD of Conspirators you’ll get, as the sole bonus feature, Svankmajer’s 16-minute short “Food” (1992), a mix of live action and stop motion that treats us to the sight of a human vending machine, a pair of diners who have to find something to eat when they can’t get served at a restaurant, and an auto-cannibalism feast. It’s a pleaser.
There is also a Spanish or Portuguese Region 0 DVD advertised for sale, which comes with two different shorts—-“Meat Love” (1988) and “Flora” (1989)—although it was listed as “unavailable” on Amazon at the time of this writing. Presumably Europeans have better options for acquiring Svankmajer on home video, but his absence west of the Atlantic is curious.
(This movie was first nominated for review by “Alvaro.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)