75. ALICE [NECO Z ALENKY] (1988)

“Alice thought to herself, ‘Now you will see a film made for children… perhaps.  But—I nearly forgot—you must close your eyes.  Otherwise, you won’t see anything.'”–Opening narration to Alice

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DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer

FEATURING: Kristýna Kohoutová, voice of Camilla Power (in English dubbed version)

PLOT: A bored young girl sits in a drab room throwing stones into a teacup when she suddenly sees a stuffed white rabbit in a display case come to life, pull a sawdust-covered stopwatch from inside its torso, and disappear into a desk drawer.  She follows it and winds up in a strange land full of talking socks, slithering steaks, and menacing skull-headed animals with razor sharp teeth.  The girl follows the white rabbit through a series of bizarre rooms until he leads her to a playing card king and queen who order the rabbit to cut off her head with the pair of scissors he carries.

Still from Alice (Neco z Alenky) (1988)

BACKGROUND:

  • Alice was Jan Svankmajer’s first feature length film after making award-winning short films for twenty-four years.  After Alice he returned to making shorts for six years before he made his next feature, Faust, in 1994.
  • Before branching out into filmmaking, Svankmajer’s primary training had been in building marionettes.
  • Svankmajer sneaks a couple of references to classic horror/suspense films into Alice: a scene where Alice is menaced by a flying creature is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), and a scene where the White Rabbit takes an axe to a door and then sticks his head through the hole is a blackly funny citation to Kubrick‘s The Shining (1980).

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Although it’s difficult to top the bony “animals” that look like they were reassembled at random from a jumbled pile of a paleontologist’s relics, it’s the White Rabbit who makes the biggest impression, from the moment he comes to life and pulls his paws out from the display case floor where they had been nailed.  His strangest habit is licking sawdust (his own guts) off the pocket watch he keeps stashed inside a wound-like gash in his torso.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  “Alice in Wonderland” is a nonsense fantasy, a fairy tale of fractured reality; it makes a perfect template for a weird movie, but no adaptation has taken the story so deep into the frightening labyrinths of the subconscious as this uncanny animation. Carroll’s and Svankmajer’s opposite talents and sensibilities complement each other perfectly, like pure cane sugar mixed with white powder heroin.


Clip from Alice

COMMENTS:  “Alice in Wonderland” has been adapted for the screen a dozen times, and the reusable framework of an episodic journey to a land of nonsense filled with lovable public domain characters has served as the outline for dozens more movies.  It’s ironic, therefore, that Neco z Alenky, arguably the most artistically successful film adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s book, is nothing at all like its source.  Or, to be more accurate, Svankmajer’s Wonderland is almost exactly like Carroll’s, but as a shadow: Svankamjer is frightening where Carroll is whimsical, obscure where Carroll is incisive, visual where Carroll is verbal, internalized and neurotic where Carroll is chatty and sociable.  Despite the fact that the credits tell us that the film was only “inspired by Alice in Wonderland“, many of the incidents in Alenky are taken directly from the book—the sea of tears, Alice growing until she’s stuck inside the White Rabbit’s house, the Mad Hatter’s tea party—but always with a strange, unexpected twist.  The White Rabbit is a taxidermy exhibit, the Caterpillar is a sock stretched on a knob, and in her shrunken incarnation Alice herself turns into a doll baby.  Other passages come entirely from the Czech’s mind, such as the socks that live under the floorboards and bore holes in the planks, but seem to fit perfectly into the new Wonderland these two giants have co-authored.

As in the book, the trip down the rabbit hole (or drawer, in this case) is a dream, but whereas the English lass’ adventures are the product of a pleasant daytime riverbank reverie, the Czech girl’s dream contains uncomfortable elements of nightmare, as if she’d fallen asleep on a hard floor with her back pressed against the spokes of a wooden chair (she has).  Alice begins her dream in a dingy room cluttered with an odd assortment of objects; before she nods off, the camera pans around to show us the everyday, real life items that her mind will twist into the creatures and features of her disturbed fantasy: a mushroom-shaped thread spool, tiny fossils, a teacup, a harlequin’s hat hanging from a puppet head, the rabbit’s Latin nameplate (“Lepus cuniculus” later serves to identify the White Rabbit’s Wonderland abode).  The first appearance of the jerky, bug-eyed White Rabbit, whose teeth are capable of biting through nails, should be terrifying, but in her dream state Alice is merely fascinated, and she turns the tables on him—as in the book, he flees when she accosts him, rather than the other way around.  Such is the topsy-turvy nature of Alice, where expectations stand on their heads.

We can’t be hurt in dreams, and Alice was immune to injury in Carroll’s books; Humpty Dumpty might toss her a few feet with an act of verbal jujitsu, but the danger of looking the fool was about as much as Alice ever risked.  Svankmajer’s Alice, wandering around the decrepit rooms of her own psyche, seems to have a similar immunity to physical injury.  In a scene that didn’t appear in Carroll, but could have, a mouse swims through Alice’s tears (which have risen to her nose) and climbs her hair with his chest of belongings to perch on top of her head, where he begins to cook a stew.  Alice looks mildly uncomfortable as he drives wooden stakes into her skull, but her curiosity to find out what he will do next gets the best of her; her eyes peer upwards in disbelief, even though she can’t actually see what’s happening above her brow.  It’s only when he lights tufts of her hair on fire that she decides “that’s going too far!” and dunks him in the saltwater.  The scene reminds us that, just like in the book, Alice can come to no harm, no matter how strange and scary the world around her turns.  Later, the White Rabbit will cut of the heads of a pair of dueling jacks with his scissors; the decapitation doesn’t effect their bout at all.

We can’t be hurt in dreams… or can we?  Earlier, the White Rabbit had disappeared down a desk drawer; when Alice finally pries the drawer open, expecting to find a portal to another world, she immediately pricks her finger on the point of a compass, screams “ow!,” and sees a drop of blood oozing from her skin.  Objects in dreams may be sharper than they appear.  Our expectations are again thwarted, and we’re not sure whether Alice is in real trouble or not.  This ambiguity comes to a fore when the film suddenly and unexpectedly heads into horror movie territory.  An oversized Alice is stuck in the White Rabbit’s dollhouse as a result of some ink she’s unwisely consumed, and the Rabbit calls to his “animals” to assist him in evicting her.  The “animals” are a bunch of bony fossils—a fish, a lizard, a bird—dressed in red jester caps with bells on the end.  Their skeletal parts are mismatched: one is a skull with two tiny hands that drag what appears to be part of a broken spine behind it. They all have razor sharp teeth.  Alice runs from them and barricades herself in a room, but the White Rabbit breaks down the door with an axe.  They grab at the hem of Alice’s dress and she beats them off with her fists.  Everywhere she turns, a new adversary appears.  A duck-billed skull bursts from out of a jar of brown muck, and the Rabbit summons a flying bed with razor sharp talons to chase the girl up a plank that leads to what appears to be a bucket of milk…  The scene is so intensely nightmarish that we’re immediately reminded of Alice’s opening narration: “A film for children… perhaps?”

Even when the world isn’t actively threatening Alice, things are fairly discomfiting.  Surrealistic interludes, like the pantry where she finds eggs that hatch baby bird skulls, bread that sprouts nails, and a slithering steak that’s crawling about blindly, are weird nightmare moments, despite the fact that Alice isn’t directly threatened.  But the biggest contributor to the saga’s continual creepiness is Svankmajer’s stop-motion animation.  If these visions had been created in today’s seamless, fluid CGI, they wouldn’t have nearly the same impact.  Stop motion is uncanny; it looks simultaneously real and unreal.  Moving almost like a real animal, but not quite—skipping frames—the White Rabbit and his friends and minions are conjured from another world, or from a dream.  Not only are its mannerisms, the way it clicks its teeth and licks its pocket watch and eats sawdust with a spoon, strange, its physical existence itself is an affront to the way we instinctively believe objects should look and behave.  Its face we can’t read, with its bulging, expressionless eyes, adds to the intensely alien effect.  And it’s not just the White Rabbit: all the entities that Alice encounters in her journey to the other side have the same out-of-place, out-of-time feeling to them, as do many of the animate objects.  Alice herself succumbs to the stop motion spell, when she shrinks into a doll, and when he is swallowed up by the desk drawer on her initial plummet into Wonderland.

Lewis Carroll’s tale took place almost entirely under the sun, in woods and open croquet fields.  By contrast, Svankmajer sets his film mostly indoors. Alice travels from one room to another inside some haunted, decaying house.  The prologue is set out of doors by a babbling stream, but Alice, once rebuffed by her mother, soon heads inside.  She briefly chases the White Rabbit across a rocky brown field before diving back indoors through the desk drawer.  There is one other time she is briefly in the open air, when she wanders through a courtyard and is able to see the sky overhead, visible over tall surrounding walls.  The rest of the film takes place entirely inside, in drab rooms that all have bare wooden floors and dingy off-white walls with peeling paint; everything looks covered in dust, and you can almost smell the must.  Carroll’s story is sunny, Svankmajer’s is in shadows.

There’s a claustrophobic effect to these interiors, one that seems to underscore the idea that the action is all taking place inside Alice’s bounded mind.    But these severe peasant rooms and their plain objects also appear very Eastern European; Svankmajer’s Alice clearly takes place behind the Iron Curtain.  In the early part of the century in the West, surrealism had been used to critique capitalism and the middle classes; but it found new life in the East, where censorship was strict and outright criticism of the state in the arts was dangerous.  Surrealism implicitly criticizes the status quo. It’s a way of opening closed eyes, pointing at fantastical absurdities that may bring to mind real outrages, and of implying that reality may not be what it seems.  It says that what seems normal may actually be strange, if you look at afresh; but it makes its points in sneaky ways that fool dull censors into thinking its mere childish nonsense.  Svankmajer grew up in the bosom of totalitarianism, in a world of severity and repression where coded languages were necessary, because speaking your mind outright could get you killed or imprisoned.  In Svankmajer’s Alice, the King and Queen of Hearts try to force the little girl to read a scripted confession (which requires her to beg for the court’s strictest punishment) as a prelude to having her head scissored off by the White Rabbit, now revealed to be the royal executioner.  The film ends on a strange and unexpected note; not only are we suddenly unsure that the preceding has really been entirely a dream, but passive, docile Alice, who’s been pushed around from the beginning of the film until now, reacts to her ultimate discovery with uncharacteristic ruthlessness.  One year after Alice was produced (with the assistance of Western European production companies), the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia stepped down.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…moves from one surreal profusion of images to another.”–Caryn James, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“Svankmajer’s sinister visual music has an irresistible potency and allure. Watching it, we feel the enthrallment of the irrational.”–Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

“…strips Alice to its proto-surrealist core.”–Sam Adams, The Philadelphia City Paper (screening)

OFFICIAL SITE: Alice – First Run Features Alice page doesn’t contain very much content besides a product description and quotes from reviews, but you can find the  four minute “caterpillar” sequence there in its entirety

IMDB LINK: Alice (1988)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Alice: The New Cult Canon – Scott Tobias’ insightful entry on Alice for the Onion A.V. Club’s series on cult films

Czech Horror: Jan Svankmajer’s Neco z Alenky (Alice) – Brigid Cherry’s article examines Svankmajer’s Gothic themes to explain why this non-horror work appeals to horror movie fans

Alice Through the Lens – the British Film Institute’s excellent survey of important Alice adaptations includes a segment on Neco z Alenky (as well as one on Tideland)

Recommended as Weird: Alice [Neco z Alenky] (1988) – Alex Kittle’s earlier short review of Alice for 366 Weird Movies

DVD INFO: The First Run Features DVD (buy) is presented in full frame (presumably the original aspect ratio) and with dubbed English vocals by Camilla Power. There is only one extra on the disc, but it’s a good one: Svankmajer’s 1989 short claymation film Darkness Light Darkness, a witty and macabre story of body parts assembling themselves into a whole person.

There are reports that the British Film Institute is planning to release Alice on Blu-ray and Region 2 DVD, in the original Czech with subtitles (only the dubbed version has been heretofore available in English).  At the time of this writing, however, the Institute had not made an official announcement on the project.

UPDATE 1/4/2015: First Run Features released an extras-free Blu-ray in 2014 (buy).

6 thoughts on “75. ALICE [NECO Z ALENKY] (1988)”

  1. Really hope they release the original czech version as that one stole my heart back when I was young. The english dubbed version just doesn’t have the same effect…

  2. I must have originally seen this in the early 90s, one of the TV channels here was showing a Svankmajer season, it was on very, very late at night as I recall and it’s overwhelming weirdness coupled with my tiredness and the dark, quiet room conspired to lodge it permanently in my memories. I was delighted to realise, when I re-watched it recently that it is just as fantastic as I recalled. The White Rabbit is the stuff of nightmares I have to say. If I had seen this in my childhood he would have haunted my nights for years.
    I’ve seen lots of TV and movie versions of what are a couple of my favorite books and this is, for me, the best Alice of all. There’s something about it that just seems totally true to the spirit of Carroll. Great review.

  3. Not my cup of tea. Having seen some of Svankmajer’s short films, I was quite disappointed in this, though I’m sure the original would be better than the English dub I saw. Primarily the problem I have centers on the little girl playing the title role. Not only is she about as expressive as the proverbial block of wood, but after every one of the White Rabbit’s lines Svankmajer insists on cutting to an extreme closeup of her mouth informing us that the Rabbit or other animals have just spoken; “Said the White Rabbit,” “Complained the White Rabbit,” “called the animals.” Annoying and jarring. Well, they can’t all be gems.

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