Today’s cinema adventure: Lunacy (Šílení), a darkly comic 2005 horror film by celebrated Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer; based on two short stories by Edgar Allan Poe and drawing inspiration from the writing and philosophies of the Marquis de Sade, its an odd, quirky and disturbing foray into the horror genre by a director known for his odd, quirky and disturbing movies, featuring his trademark mixture of macabre puppetry and animation as well as his usual surrealist influences. Like most of Švankmajer’s work, it initially received little attention outside of Europe (and the few remaining “art house” theaters), but it has since found an audience, alongside the rest of his canon, among the ranks of his loyal international cult following.
Though it begins, ostensibly, in a present day-setting, the story is quickly drawn anachronistically into the 18th Century, as its protagonist, Jean, is befriended by a wealthy and mysterious marquis (in full period garb) who travels by horse-drawn coach and is attended by a mute servant. Jean is plagued by recurring nightmares in which two leering goons accost him in his sleep and attempt to forcibly restrain him with a straight jacket; after one such dream causes him to destroy his hotel room in a somnambulant struggle, the marquis comes to his aid by paying for the damages, and then invites the young man to travel with him to his home. Jean soon discovers, however, that his new benefactor possesses a cruel streak; during his stay he is subjected to cruel pranks- including a bizarre and secretive nocturnal interment- and surreptitiously witnesses a blasphemous ritual in which God and morality are denounced and a young woman in chains is beaten and raped. Eventually, he accompanies his host to a local asylum, where he is persuaded to remain as a voluntary patient in order to receive treatment for his nighttime disturbances. His agreement to this arrangement, however, is in reality spurred by the presence there of the girl abused in the black mass, whom he fears to be trapped within the sinister machinations of the marquis and his friend who runs the institution. Vowing to rescue her and expose the sadistic purposes of her captors, he sets about discovering the hidden truth of the hospital- a place where the inmates and staff are virtually indistinguishable, where chaos and debauchery seem to rampage unchecked, and where a dark secret lies hidden behind the walls, waiting to be set free.
Švankmajer (who provides a spoken introduction to the film in which he plainly states its purpose and emphatically proclaims it not to be “a work of art”) draws the inspiration for his narrative from Poe’s stories, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether and The Premature Burial, but the underlying thematic premise is derived from the views espoused by the notorious Marquis de Sade- upon whom the film’s primary antagonist is clearly based. The argument of both the real and fictional marquis- that man is a product of nature, cruel and carnal by design, and that notions of God and morality are false constructs based in fear and designed to impose control over the weak and foolish- is the central idea which fuels the story, alongside the added intellectual exploration of two opposing methods to governing the insane: absolute control and absolute freedom. As to the latter, the director states unequivocally in his prologue that the state of the modern world is a combination of the worst aspects of each of these methods, but- apart from this rather glib assessment- his film offers no real support for this theory beyond the extrapolations that can be made from the allegorical elements of the scenario. Regarding man’s bestiality, however, Švankmajer gives us plenty of meat- literally. Providing a sort of running commentary to the action are short segments, produced with the filmmaker’s familiar stop-motion techniques, featuring slabs of raw meat animated into performing various activities reminiscent of basic instinctual behavior- such as eating, fighting, and sexual intercourse- continually reinforcing the idea of humanity as mere senseless flesh driven by primal impulses. These vignettes, intercut with the main action, also serve to give Lunacy much of its “creep” factor, though as always in Švankmajer’s films, there is good amount of tongue-in-cheek humor that makes us grin even as we cringe. On a less abstract level, within the narrative proper, the idea of man’s natural urge towards sex and cruelty is illustrated repeatedly in scenes best left for the viewer to discover for himself, with Jean and his enigmatic damsel-in-distress as the only representatives of sanity- as equated to decency, that is. However, in keeping with the film’s source material, not to mention its creator’s penchant for surrealism, it is never exactly clear that our assumptions are true, and the question of what constitutes sanity- or decency, for that matter- is one which Lunacy leaves unanswered, choosing rather to provide cynical observation on the basic state of humanity.
Švankmajer has built his unique reputation with decades of imaginative filmmaking, blending live action with animation in ways that are at once deceptively simple and devilishly clever. Influenced by an early career in puppet theatre, he has brought his traditional stagecraft sensibilities into his cinematic language, establishing himself as a genuine auteur with his shorts and feature films that incorporate not only the aforementioned stop-motion techniques, but claymation, a mixture of realistic and stylized scenery as well as puppets and live actors (and sometimes live actors dressed as puppets), and a generally theatrical style possessed of unmistakably ancient roots that stretch back to the Commedia dell’Arte and beyond. Lunacy, however, like many of his recent works, utilizes a greater proportion of more-or-less straightforward live action footage; indeed, apart from the previously described meat-in-motion sequences, it contains relatively little of Švankmajer’s familiar visual trickery. This is not to say the movie is short on the director’s usual delight in showmanship; throughout the story are numerous sequences that clearly draw from his love for the stage- the black mass, viewed from the perspective of an unseen audience (Jean peering through a window), is blatantly theatrical, and a tableau vivant of Delacroix’s La Liberté guidant le peuple is later staged by the marquis at the asylum, a nod to the historical de Sade’s direction of plays featuring other inmates when he was at Charenton asylum- as well as to Marat/Sade, the famous avant-garde dramatization of those real-life “productions.” In addition, the trappings of theatre are scattered throughout the film- costumes, wigs, false facial hair- and the marquis’ entire persona seems to be a sort of performance, as if he is always centerstage in the theatre of his own life. All of this plays into Švankmajer’s eternal fascination with illusion and the tricks of perception that allow us to be deceived by our own minds, which in turn fits neatly into the Poe-inspired horror scenario, hinging as it does on this very idea; further, the subject matter gives Lunacy‘s theatricality the specific flavor of true Grand Guignol, a style named for the 19th Century Parisian theatre that popularized the staging of horror spectacles, steeped in gore and blasphemy, known for inducing a kind of sexual response to their sensationalistic thrills- which is, of course, highly appropriate in a piece so infused with the spirit of De Sade.
Lunacy is not, of course, a play, and though it borrows much from the theatrical milieu, it also revels in its cinematic nature. Švankmajer’s understanding of his medium is absolute; he directs with the confidence- even the cockiness- of someone like Hitchcock or Kubrick, delighting in his offbeat style and audaciously presenting his subversive ideas with imagery that is as indelible as it is absurd. That Lunacy is a self-proclaimed horror film makes little difference in the director’s approach; the choices and tactics he employs are no more horrific than those in any given Švankmajer film, and indeed, he shows considerable restraint here, leaving many things to the imagination that might, with a different director behind the camera, be exploited for their full shock potential. Providing shock has never been of interest to Švankmajer; rather, he prefers to unsettle us, to disturb the comfort of our psyches by inundating it with the illogical and the impossible, simulating the peculiar flow of a dreamlike consciousness where the contradictory makes perfect sense and the ordinary seems unnatural and menacing. He creates a hallucinatory landscape in which the demons of our imagination appear before our eyes in all their unexpected familiarity, and because he is so good at doing so, the things he doesn’t show us are all the more potent.
Lunacy, like all of Švankmajer’s films, is ultimately beyond the realm of standard criticism; it exists as a thing unto itself, and to this whimsically macabre visionary’s loyal legion of acolytes, it is one more perfect creation in a body of work that, thankfully, continues to grow. That said, however, watching his effort at a bona fide horror film (though truthfully, in my view, all of his work could be classed as such) is something of a disappointment. Given the genre into which he has ventured, one might expect a hitherto unseen level of grotesquery, if not in outright terror and gore, at least in the ferociousness of his approach; but although the film contains several highly effective set pieces (the aforementioned black mass- with its mixture of the arcane, the blasphemous, and the erotic- pushes a lot of buttons for those uncomfortable with such improprieties, and the entire premature burial sequence is a mini-masterpiece of evoking chills with atmospheric story-telling) and it maintains a palpable sense of dread and impending doom throughout, it seems strangely subdued- particularly given its influences from Poe and de Sade, neither of whom could be called masters of restraint. It’s true that the film is meant to be comedic as well, albeit in the darkest sense; but again, this can be said of most of Śvankmajer’s work. Furthermore, his narrative- despite the anachronisms, non-sequiturs, and other occasionally jarring surrealist ornamentation- is uncharacteristically straightforward, linear, and grounded in a relatively concrete reality (with the exception of the ongoing interpolation of animated meat, that is). Taken on the whole, Lunacy is less engaging than his Faust, and less disturbing than his Lewis Carroll adaptation, Alice, both of which push the limits of our preconceived boundaries with more enthusiasm and, consequently, linger in our memories far more pervasively.
Comparisons with his other work aside, Švankmajer’s horror film is still an impressively imaginative piece of work, capturing in its unorthodox framework both the delirious psychic instability that makes Poe’s stories feel like a fever dream and the perverse thrill that lies at the heart of de Sade’s nihilistic hedonism. It’s not terrifying- though parts of it may cause faint hearts to beat faster- and its eventual conclusion is predictable for anyone who even a passing familiarity with the conceits of horror fiction; nevertheless, it succeeds better, both on an intellectual and a deeply primal level, than most of the formulaic, shock-oriented thrillers churned out by the mainstream film industry in its pursuit of teenage dollars. Of course, its bizarre stylization may prevent many casual audiences from finding it appealing; Švankmajer’s movies are not for every taste, certainly, though in truth, Lunacy may be more accessible than much of his more directly avant-garde work. As for those with more eclectic tastes, those who are already indoctrinated into the peculiar joys of this Czech master may find, as I did, that Lunacy fails to generate the same deliciously mind-twisting effects as some of his other projects- though doubtless there will be those, with whom it strikes a particular chord, who will quickly adopt it as a new favorite; those adventurous cinema enthusiasts who have yet to see a Švankmajer film, however, are likely to find it a pleasant introduction to a strange and darkly wondrous world unlike anything they have seen before. It’s as good an introduction as any, and if it leaves you wanting more, you can take comfort in the fact that a five-decade body of work exists, awaiting your discovery.