DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer
FEATURING: Pavel Liska, Jan Tríska, Anna Geislerová
PLOT: A mentally unbalanced man meets a modern day Marquis de Sade, who convinces him to check himself into a bizarre asylum where the patients roam free.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Readers may think I’m a lunatic myself for not inducting this tale involving the Marquis de Sade, an asylum run by chicken-farming lunatics, and animated steaks onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies on the first ballot. To tell the truth, Lunacy comes about as close as a movie can to being a first-ballot inductee without making it. In defense of my decision to leave it off the List for the time being, I point out that Lunacy may actually be Jan Svankajer’s most conventional movie. If you mentally remove the startling but inessential stop-animation transitions between scenes, then squint hard, it looks like just a regular horror movie; the director insists as much in his prologue to the film. Given that this is Svankmajer’s most “normal” and accessible movie, if Lunacy makes the List, then all the Czech director’s work should automatically make it.
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 should produce something singularly strange; the fun in watching the movie is in seeing how they actually mix. 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 is a digression from the main plotline that’s fun but unnecessary, while the other supplies the basic conceit for the entire second half of the movie. Because the first half of the film is devoted to a long introduction to the characters, with that excursion into an interesting but unrelated 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). It’s De Sade who dominates this blend, 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 on screen playing a dirty old man. Svankmajer also takes an obvious delight in staging the blasphemous Sadean rituals the Marquis enacts in his cellar, which become the centerpiece of the film’s first half. The Marquis hammers nails into a crucifix while devil-worshiping partiers eat 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 naive to argue against him effectively. But, if the Marquis Svankmajer gives us here has a fault, it’s that he’s 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. By the end of the movie, by design, the Marquis becomes a sympathetic figure, but even before this, the director’s sympathies seem to be with the Marquis. 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 porterhouse marionettes, 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 complete non-sequiturs (tongues emerge from every orifice on a marble bust, including unexpected ones). Though the plot’s 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 film; 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 (though it’s way too perverted for grandma, unless you have a really hip grannie).
Many reviewers see Lunacy as a political allegory on the current state of Eastern Europe, with the Marquis representing the licentious excesses of democratic capitalism and the asylum’s old guard representing the iron-fisted order imposed by the Communists. Svankmajer himself 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 does add something to the picture. Personally, I think that the entire disclaimer is just Svankmajer Jan-king our collective chains.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“These goofy bits — dancing steaks! beer-lapping tongues! — echo at once ‘Gumby’ and the dark Dada whimsy of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animation. Its brazen perversity makes you laugh. But not as much as Svankmajer probably wants… Svankmajer comes off as the brooding Eastern European pessimist who thrives on hearing himself complain about the hopeless darkness of it all.”–Chris Garcia, Austin American-Statesman (contemporaneous)
(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.)