Movie Review
Director: Jan Švankmajer
Cast: Anna Geislerová, Pavel Liska, Jan Tríska

silenus was the drunken teacher of hedonist god Dionysus. Reviled as a symbol of ridicule for his inebriation, Silenus was revered in other quarters as a man of wisdom for his prophetic and transcendental visions. Unsurprisingly, it was the virile young satyrs (horse-eared and bearing almighty erections) who celebrated his indulgent teachings most enthusiastically, adopting the oaf as prophet and leader in a move not unfamiliar to fans of The Happy Mondays.

The often confused relationship between hedonism and sanity, spirituality and power, and freedom and control is key to Jan Švankmajer 's latest feature, which references the works of French deviant the Marquis De Sade as well as two of Edgar Allen Poe's less renowned gothic fables. The director has coined this latest feature, Lunacy, a `philosophical horror movie`.

Our protagonist Jean, a naive young traveler, is haunted by dreams of men breaking into his room at night and taking him away in a straightjacket—a fate that once befell his mother. So violent are his late night stirrings that he finds his sanity in question by all but the wise and benevolent Marquis, who takes the apprehensive Jean under his wing.

He is introduced to a lunatic asylum run quite contently by its own inmates, their apparent calm indebted in no small part to the services of nymphomaniac nurse Charlotte, whose equally subservient and embittered relationship to the Marquis brings to mind the character of 'Mad' Madeleine LeClerc, played by Kate Winslet in 2000's Quills.

The nurse appears to embody the asylum as a whole, paradoxically being both a benevolent and power-hungry force to both the patients and their captors (turned captive). She is both harlot and mother, heaven and earth; and the film's prominent political figure: Mother Chaos, or, as I am inclined to believe, the tempestuous motherland.

Although Švankmajer 's surrealist principles make him more an ambassador of imagination than a filmmaker with a transparent political agenda, so relevant is the imagery at play in his latest work I cannot help but think of its political significance.

Perhaps the story is a reference to the difficulties posed by the rebirth of a bohemian Czech Republic since the fall of communism (Czechoslovakia did, after all, comprise most of Bohemia, where the term originated). Pope John Paul acrimoniously warned Czech followers of 'imported hedonism' in a speech a decade ago, and with the economy booming, the Czech youth are indulging in the type of hedonistic lifestyle unavailable to their parents, and likely Švankmajer. However, with new freedoms come new problems, and crises of identity.

Orgiastic ritual in spite of religious practice is studied in the Marquis' S&M; circus held in the asylum church, with an aesthetic than owes more than a little to Austrian actionist Hermann Nitsch's bloody and ceremonial depictions of flux. However the greatest indicator is perhaps Jean's own fears and lustful confusions.

In a 1968 short film The Flat, Švankmajer made a paranoid, Kafka-esque comment on life under red rule in his depiction of a single man 'holed up' in a dilapidated room, with no hope of release. In Lunacy, our protagonist is haunted with nightmares of men forcing their way into his room, taking him from his place of slumber and to the 'madhouse'. In short, he is taken from the simple, maternal comforts of a communist state to the incoherence of hedonistic capitalism.

This transition destroyed his mother, and will perhaps destroy the motherland. Oedipal interplay is introduced as Jean lusts for Charlotte, who embodies both the sexual temptation of the new order (explored by her depiction as Liberty from Delacroix's 'Liberty Leading the People,' iconic of the French revolution) and the maternal rationale of, and concern for, the old guard.

Švankmajer's protagonist embodies a Czech youth perhaps not as comfortable with their new freedoms as may be perceived. Looking to the problems faced by a generation of Eastern Europeans first exposed to the incoherence of capitalism and post-modernity evokes bleak parallels with the disillusioned youth of the West, and begs the question: when one can get drunk on freedom, is it mad to harbor reservations, and crave a greater purpose?

The luscious stop motion animations amidst the chaos offer relief, and the humbling affirmation that regardless of your location, the realm of imagination is a timeless refuge for the disenfranchised. Švankmajer, now 72, remains essential and uncompromising in his vision.

Lunacy is now available on DVD. See another take on this movie by Stylus writer Jonas Oransky here.

By: Mat Dryhurst
Published on: 2007-04-19
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