2005Director: Jan Svankmajer
Cast: Pavel Liska, Jan Triska, Anna Geislerova
zech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer’s entry into the Eastern European totalitarian-fable pantheon, Lunacy, ties two Edgar Allen Poe stories together with a set of disturbed characters and several cows worth of stop-motion, run-amok raw meat. As he declares in an onscreen preamble, the director depicts one society utterly dictated by structure and one drowning in lawlessness; combining the two (and this is our contemporary mess, Svankmajer insists) results in a “horror film.”
In the first plot, a proletarian Czech returning home from his mother’s funeral becomes the pariah of a rural hotel after a spot of violent somnambulance. A guardian angel, in the form of a 19th century Marquis intervenes, providing struggling hero Jean with food, transportation, and antique aristocratic lodging. Once firmly trapped in this bygone setting, Jean is party to an orgy-based call to prayer and a far-worse psychological quest pursued diligently and in the most morbid of humors.
While repulsive, Lunacy is decidedly not horror. Disorientation deteriorating into chaos is standard for such fables (ref. Kafka, Gombrowicz, Kosinski), and from the very beginning of this film, car accidents and aggravated assault are plainly set aside as non-incidents. And while the midnight mass-cum-gang-rape is indeed graphic, there is little if any drama attached to it. Rather, the scene is matter-of-fact, and the blasphemous preacher Marquis is drawn antiseptically. This is not merely because fornication staged by a gentle old man (Svankmajer is over 70) is unpornographic, but because this is a pedantic project, meant to show and tell with clarity—thus the introduction—and with limited emotion. This stone-faced approach is definitional for the genre; these authors don’t prioritize entertainment because depressed conditions call for something more effectual. Even those few earnest parishioners who attend the Marquis and are treated to his accoutrements appear to be starving.
Svankmajer knows, of course, that his film lacks the suspense and the aggravated heart rates of proper horror; Lunacy is deeper than such ephemera, and isn’t willing to compromise its intellectualism by getting too excited. It’s interesting, then, that the director made his name in stop-motion animation, which was frivolous to a degree (he first made a stir with an Alice in Wonderland adaptation), and has become more political as he’s tended more toward live action. His human characters possess a wooden, demonstrative quality, very fitting and no doubt a product of his background in arranging twenty-four images per second by hand. But quite ironically, the most live thing in Lunacy is a series of stop-motion interludes: Every ten minutes or so, the movie is punctuated by raw meat performing frantic and hideous acts. Meat slides through mud, mates with itself, and even upends structural integrity, overcoming the grout in the Marquis’ walls. By limiting the use of stop-motion, and by animating dead things instead of puppets, the movie accomplishes that rare task of being genuinely funny and grotesque at once—without embarrassing the serious nature of its commentary.
The second plot, in which mental patients frolic lawlessly in an asylum they’ve overrun plays as a post-totalitarian fable. A couple of decades after the Eastern bloc began to crumble, Svankmajer has more in his arsenal because he can tackle this other extreme, and can achieve the synthesis announced in the introduction. This is not to say that he fully succeeds in his decision to tell two stories: While the stitching together isn’t too painful, Lunacy does feel like two short films, and abandons any aspiration to perfect character arcs or studies in tension.
That said, the second story is very funny: It accelerates the farce, as for example a collection of glue-on facial-hair toupees signals phoniness. But this story also has no trouble maintaining a consistent sadness and sense of exploitation, populated as it is by free-range mentally disabled. The 1966 cult film King of Hearts features a bumbling British WWI private who happens upon a similarly self-executing asylum, but there, the strange liberty is illuminating and hopeful. What Lunacy engages in is a kind of uncomfortable gratification, a savage feeling of decadence that mirrors the hilarity of the meat escapades.
The anachronistic frame is also a great success. Communicating political points like these can be difficult, and the Marquis’ insistence on antebellum deftly translates the film from the modern-day into a place distant but not too distant. Manderlay’s 1930s slave plantation plays a similar hand, and this movie’s reverse science fiction is as unsettling and fruitful. Then again, Svankmajer is lucky in the end to have this trick up his sleeve. It is in the nature of the political fable that its ending is predetermined by its conditions; in this case, the audience cares so little about the characters that the ultimate twists of political fate register as less than anticlimactic. Thankfully, the brilliant out-of-time setup enables a final contemporary shot, of a Gursky mega-market aisle stocked with pre-packaged meats in full, seething aliveness.
Lunacy is playing in limited release.
By: Jonas Oransky
Published on: 2006-08-10