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Directed by Jan Svankmajer
Produced in 2005
Main Language - Czech with English subtitles
Pavel Liska, Jan Triska
The lunatics have taken over the asylum in vankmajer's 'infantile tribute to Edgar Allan Poe and the Marquis de Sade'. It's a bracingly dark vision of life gone awry, says Graeme Hobbs.
In Svankmajer's 'infantile tribute to Edgar Allan Poe and the Marquis de Sade' (his words), a god-fearing young man returning from his mother's funeral gets involved with a maniacal Marquis who sends him to an asylum where he 'can satisfy his secret urge to suffer'. But who is in charge at the asylum? Is Charlotte really the Doctor's daughter, held against her will, or a manipulative, insatiable hysteric? And who are the tarred and feathered men kept locked in the institution's dark basement?
Lunacy is a dark, chastening, sour and septic film concocted by a Svankmajer screwed a couple of twists tighter than usual. As you might infer from the title, this is Svankjmajer with the shackles off - not in the breadth and craft of his invention, which remains consistent - but in his irredeemably nightmarish vision of the abyss of the human condition. It's a very bad dream indeed. Either the asylum in question is run by libertarian madmen or sadistic madmen. One class are the inmates, the other are the experts. Take your pick; it's one or the other. That's it - or not quite. As Svankmajer says in his introduction, 'there is a third option that combines and exacerbates the very worst aspects of the other two - and that is the madhouse we live in today.' Indeed, Lunacy is more than an ideological debate about how to run an asylum, it is the theatre of the world, borne along on the surging, tormented cries of the deranged; a comfortless vision in which the innocent are abused by the depraved and those who live without illusions suffer less than those who do.
It opens with an introduction from Svankmajer himself, in which he gives a partial answer to the film's mood. 'Ladies and gentlemen,' he says, 'what you are about to see is a horror film, with all the degeneracy peculiar to that genre. It is not a work of art. Today, art is almost dead anyway. In its place is a kind of trailer for the reflection of the faces of narcissists.' Such an analysis requires something more severe than mere entertainment or moribund art. As if to startle us out of our complacency, the film opens with the slitting of a pig and the spill and slop of its guts.
Lunacy pays as little attention to the barriers between waking and dream as Bunuel's Belle de Jour (the comparison comes to mind early with the Marquis' carriage and late with the mysterious box of erotic tricks) and also has as little hope for the future as Godard's Weekend (whose scenes of automobile carnage it references). It's a film slathered and crawled over by tongues seeking out anything to lick up and lick clean, from beer to head wounds, and also carries a disturbing thread of cannibalistic auto-destruction. At one point cuts of meat, tongue, eyes and trotters readily hop into a mincer, where chickens wait for their writhing worms of mince, their feed causing them to lay meat eggs whose insides crack their shells and head straight for the mincer too. In another animated commentary a chicken on a plate turns itself from live and feathered fowl to bare carcase in a matter of seconds. At least in Peter Greenaway's stop-motion dances of decay in A Zed and Two Noughts it was maggots that did the work; here it's the chicken that plucks, cooks and devours itself.
At the end, Doctor Coulmiere looks a straitjacketed Jean - and us - right in the eye, and diagnoses that our vital eliquibrium has become disturbed and needs curing. He'll begin with 'Treatment Number One' - whereupon we cut straight to a supermarket and a pack of cling-filmed meat pulsing in its blue light. We are what we eat.
To the sound of the rinky-dink piano that accompanies all the animated sequences in the film, three slabs of beef slither out of the side of the Marquis' plaster Christ, nailed into a Bakongo fetish figure for his black mass. They crawl across a dusty floor, ascend a ladder to a stage where they are strung up as meat puppets for a while, to strut and chirrup for a brief span of time on a sliding screen stage similar to the one used in Alice, until the waves overcome them and they disappear beneath the sea along with their strings. Curtain.
Graeme Hobbs on 24th May 2012
Author of 276 reviews
In the live-action story with animated interludes, orphan Jean comes under the influence of a sinister Marquis, who, in between participating in black masses, orgies and ordering his own burial, suggests to Jean that he admits himself into the nearby asylum to cure his nightmare-inducing fear of madness. Since the institution follows the Marquis' libertarian principles, the inmates have the run of the place to chaotic effect. The lunatics really take over the asylum, but would things really improve if the disciplinarian former regime returned to power?
Publisher: New Wave Films
Length: 114 mins
Cat No: NW035
Format: DVD Colour
Subtitles: English , French , German , Spanish
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