DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer
FEATURING: Pavel Liska, Jan Tríska, Anna Geislerová
PLOT: A young man suffers recurring nightmares about white-coated men coming to seize him in the night. When he awakens the guests at a roadside inn as he thrashes about during one of these attacks, one man, a modern-day Marquis, takes an interest in him and invites him back to his manor. There, the Marquis troubles the traveler with macabre games that may be real or may be staged, then suggests he voluntarily commit himself to an experimental mental asylum for “purgative therapy” to cure his nightmares.
- The script is loosely based on two Edgar Allan Poe stories: “The Premature Burial” and “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” The character of the Marquis is obviously based on the .
- Svankmajer wrote an initial version of the script that became Lunacy in the 1970s, but the Communist authorities refused to approve the film.
- This was the last film Svankmajer would work on with his longtime collaborator, costume designer, and wife, Eva Svankmajerová; she died a few months after the film’s completion. Among her other duties, she painted the deck of cards featuring Sadean tortures.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: It has to be one of Svankmajer’s meaty animations. We picked the scene of brownish cow tongues slithering out of a classical bust—including a pair escaping from the marble nipples—but we wouldn’t blame you for going with the sirloin marionettes instead.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Meat bumpers; shirt unlocking door; human chickens
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s got the Marquis de Sade, an asylum run by chicken-farming lunatics, and animated steaks dancing in between scenes. Despite that lineup, it may be Jan Svankmajer’s most conventional movie. The director calls it an “infantile tribute to Edgar Allen Poe” in his introduction—and is interrupted by a tongue inching its way across the floor.
Introduction to Lunacy (2005)
COMMENTS: The trailer explains that “Edgar Allan Poe + the Marquis de Sade + Jan Svankmajer = Lunacy.” It’s self-evident that combining these three uniquely perverse talents would produce something singularly strange; the fun in watching the movie is in seeing how they actually mix. Not surprisingly, Svankmajer bends the other two to his will, using Poe for inspiration and Sade for symbolism and shock value, while exploring his own obsessions with modern politics, juxtaposed with apolitical Surrealist animations developed in the butcher shop.
Poe adds the least to the recipe, providing mere plot. Adaptations of two different stories by the doom-laden 19th century Romantic make appearances here; one (“The Premature Burial”) is a digression from the main plotline that’s fun but ultimately unnecessary, while the other (“The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”) supplies the conceit for the entire second half of the movie. Because the first half of the film is a long introduction to the characters, with the aforementioned excursion into an interesting but barely related Poe tale, Lunacy‘s story doesn’t flow as well as it might. The plot doesn’t really get started in earnest until the movie hits the halfway mark on its run time. Other than basic story ideas, there is not much of a “Poe” feel to the rest of the film, except whatever lingering flavor comes from the passive, psychologically tormented protagonist Jean (stringy-haired, unshaven Liska, who looks like a raggedy Czech Johnny Depp). That tormented Poe-ish protagonist, shattered by the death of his mother and a paralyzing fear that her insanity is hereditary, is so enervated and helpless that, despite his innocence and decency, we quickly lose sympathy for him. He won’t stand up to anyone, at least not face-to-face.
De Sade dominates the film’s tone, just as the character referred to only as “the Marquis” (almost) always dominates the other characters when he’s onscreen. With his charmingly cruel smile, Jan Tríska attacks the role of the “Marquis” with roguish relish; it’s like watching your kindly grandfather playing a dirty old man. Svankmajer also takes an obvious delight in staging the blasphemous Sadean rituals the Marquis enacts in his cellar. The Marquis hammers nails into a crucifix while devil-worshiping partiers eat a chocolate (?) cake shaped like a cross in front of a chained woman; he paints crosses on the backs of naked women and sprinkles communion wafers on them as he rants at God and dares Him to strike him dead. Like Ken Russell, Svankmajer has a way of ritualizing depravity to make it look elegant, erotic and enticing. The Marquis gets off one of de Sade’s patented philosophical atheist harangues, and, like the victims in Sade’s novels, Jean is too dim and naïve to argue against him effectively. But, if the Marquis Svankmajer gives us here has a fault, it’s that he is, perversely, too kindhearted and likeable. He pulls his punches, never kills any babies or tortures bound women with hot pokers or plays games with scat; he’s more prankster than monster. It is interesting to note that, like Svankmajer, de Sade lived under two different regimes: an authoritarian monarchy, followed by an anarchic democracy. There is also a nod to de Sade’s infamous career as an asylum playwright (a historical curiosity referenced in another weird play/movie, Marat/Sade) when the Marquis stages a tableaux vivant recreation of Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” populated by uncooperative schizophrenics. And the Marquis echoes Sade’s personal history by becoming first a collaborator in, then a victim of, a radical democratic institution. By the end of the movie, by design, the Marquis becomes a sympathetic figure; but even before this, the director’s sympathies seem to lie with him.
As for Svankmajer’s role in the triumvirate, he puts his mark on the affair with the many stop-motion bumper segments that indulge his long-time obsession with animated meat. We see dancing porterhouses, disembodied tongues wrestling (or copulating) on an operating table, and meat bursting out of the armpit of a statue, while tinny piano roll music plays. Sometimes the animated segments comment on the action in the narrative (steaks are tarred and feathered), but just as often they are non-sequiturs (tongues emerging from every orifice on a marble bust). Although the plot is unlikely and very twisted, it’s these constant intrusions of segmented surrealism that make the movie truly weird, and brand it as unmistakably Svankmajer. Overall, Lunacy may not be this director’s best film, but Svankmajer is one of the only filmmakers who’s constitutionally incapable of delivering a boring movie; he can play with the same motifs and images (living cuts of meat, chickens, bug-eyed animal skeletons) over and over without ever draining them of their power. With its familiar horror film structure and the clear segregation of the surrealism away from the plot, Lunacy may make a good “starter Svankmajer” for the uninitiated (although it’s way too perverted for grandma, unless you have a really hip granny).
Many reviewers see Lunacy as a political allegory on the then-current state of Eastern Europe, with the Marquis’ authoritarian sadism yielding to the asylum’s rambunctious democratic experiment, which itself births a new form of tyranny and repression. Svankmajer went to pains to personally record a prologue to the film stating that Lunacy is “just” a horror movie (“with all of the degeneracy peculiar to that genre”) and explicitly saying that the film is not intended as “Art.” The movie can be enjoyed as “just” a creepy spectacle, and anyone who insists on looking for a “deeper meaning” (as always) runs the risk of missing out on the film’s eerie non-rational magic, but the light allegory adds something to the picture. Personally, I think that the entire disclaimer is just Svankmajer Jan-king our collective chains.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The indefatigable Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer returns with another weird little tale… Svankmajer tells us this is a “horror” film – if he’s right, it’s certainly the least conventional one of all time.”–Andrew Pulver, The Guardian (contemporaneous)
“While ‘Lunacy’ leaves you with the impression that Svankmajer is more expressive with cutlets than he is with his atypically human-dominated dreamscape, some of the images are doozies.”–Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune (contemporaneous)
“Surrealism is alive and well in Czech animator Jan Svankmajer’s aptly titled live-action weird-fest “Lunacy”… This is one of those deliriously unhinged movies that looks, feels and sounds genuinely insane, for all the right artistic reasons.”–Jeff Shannon, Seattle Times (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: Lunacy (2005)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Lunacy :: Zeitgeist Films – The American distributor’s Lunacy page with stills, the trailer, and a link to the pressbook
LIST CANDIDATE: LUNACY [SILENI] (2005) – This site’s original review of Lunacy
HOME VIDEO INFO: Lunacy (buy) was the last Svankmajer film released on DVD by Zeitgeist Films, formerly the Czech surrealist’s exclusive U.S. distributor. Extras include about 15 minutes of behind the scenes footage, an “ephemera gallery” with production stills and copies of the cards drawn by Eva Svankmajerova, and the theatrical trailer. It also comes packaged with an insert containing a transcript of a rare Svankmajer interview (the director usually avoids talking to the public).
The film has not been released on Blu-ray, and frankly would not benefit much from high-definition without significant restoration. The image has a very soft and somewhat murky look, looking decades older than its 2005 date would suggest.
Lunacy is available to stream with a Mubi subscription.
(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Newtonian Vibes,” who added that all Svankmajer’s movies “all be appreciated for the beauty and strangeness of them.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)