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The last man standing at the surrealists’ party, Czech animator Jan Svanmajer is as good as his tag in 2005’s Lunacy (aka Sílení), a blend of live action and trademark stop-motion, using two Edgar Allan Poe stories and the life of the Marquis de Sade as inspiration.

Svankmajer himself pops up just before the story gets going, in front of a white screen, to inform us that art is almost dead and has been replaced with advertising, that the deep has been replaced by the superficial, the implication being that what we’re about to see is a) art and b) deep.

Bold claim. He’s also told us that his film is about two different ways of treating lunacy – the nice way and the horrible way, though both can be used badly, he caveats. As Svankmajer is speaking a tongue is inching its way across the floor, crawling like a caterpillar. When he finishes, an entire hanging carcass of beef suddenly splits in two and all the organs tumble out.

And on to the film itself, which is about a poor unfortunate called Jean (Pavel Liska) who when we meet him is being plagued by paranoid fantasies about being cornered by bald orderlies who will put him into a straitjacket if they can immobilise him. Instead, unexpectedly, Jean is taken up by a marquis (Jan Tríska), who first of all treats him to the gamut of wine, women and orgiastic sex before delivering him to an asylum where Jean is eventually exposed to the rough end of the treatment spectrum by the men in white coats. Neither improves his state of mind.

Svankmajer calls this a horror film in his preamble and shoots it in Hammer horror style – it’s brightly lit, mists roll about, owls hoot, and there’s no shortage of comely wenches – as if we were back in the 18th century. But in one giveaway designed to confound in classic juxtaposing surreal style, the marquis’s horse-drawn coach speeds over a bridge while below, on a motorway, several lanes of modern traffic go about their business.

Punctuating all this are the stop-motion cutaways, familiar Svankmajer stuff, of pieces of meat re-animated back to ghoulish life, eyeballs rolling, tongues re-inserting themselves into sheeps’ skulls, big pieces of beef flexing, breathing, pushing themselves into mincing machines. At one point a live chicken turns into a roasted bird before our eyes, then gets devoured by unseen mouths. Meat amok. Mad meat.

Jan Tríska as the Marquis
Jan Tríska as the Marquis

The asylum is particularly inspired, a massive old hospital where the air is absolutely full of feathers and the inmates taboggan down the stairs – this is before the current regime is suddenly exposed as being in cahoots with the libertine marquis. When the old regime – who have been kept tarred and feathered in the cellar – get their power back, the fun abruptly ends and Jean discovers how real inmates in real asylums are treated.

Pavel Liska plays the embattled Jean as a Jonathan Harker figure to the marquis’s Count Dracula, the hapless naive at the whim of a mysterious figure whose benign exterior hides something darker.

Hooray for him but even more for Jan Tríska, who holds the whole thing together with a roistering, hollering, cackling, boggle-eyed performance operating at the high end of the pantomime scale. And Anna Geislerová makes for a sweet Charlota, the much abused young woman who keeps surfacing in Jean’s life and who he first glimpses giving the marquis a blow-job at one of his satanic orgies. For Jean, it’s love at first sight.

It’s a wild, mad romp, as Svanmajer’s films tend to be, alive with imagination, full of comic touches and with many an example of “animal” base behaviour from humans along way. But the narrative tends to drift when it should drive and Svankmajer doesn’t seem to know when to stop. A little of this sort of thing goes a long way.

Lunacy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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