Conspirators Of Pleasure (Spiklenci slasti)

Czech Republic (1996) Dir. Jan Svankmajer

As you know we Brits have a saying: “There’s nowt so queer as folks”. In this case it could be argued that it applies to both the director of this extraordinary film as well as the deviant cast it features – for it takes a particularly unique mind to create such an unusual group of characters in the first place.

I admit I’m stalling a little here because I genuinely unsure as to how to put into words both a summary and my thoughts of Czech director Jan Svankmajer’s third film, the near plotless onslaught of nonsense that is Conspirators Of Pleasure. It’s about sex – or at least unusual sexual peccadilloes – yet seems to have little to directly do with sex; it certainly isn’t sexy or erotic in the grand scheme of things but erotic pleasure appears to be the goal of the characters.

They are Mr. Pivonka (Petr Meissel), a quiet bachelor who lives in a flat opposite Mrs. Loubalova (Gabriela Wilhelmová) and who buys adult magazines from his local newsagent Mr. Kula (Jirí Lábus). The local post-lady is Malková (Barbora Hrzánová) while TV newsreader Beltinska (Anna Wetlinská) laments how her police captain husband Beltinsky (Pavel Nový) pays her no attention. Initially interaction between this sextet is largely nebulous and a matter of either everyday occurrence or sheer coincidence, the only outward connection for the audience to make being their shared secret of personal idiosyncrasies.

Pivonka receives a letter which reads, in cut out letters, “Sunday” then produces a live chicken from his wardrobe and takes it to Mrs. Loubalova to decapitate for him, which she does so with glee. He then gets to work making a clay/papier-mâché chicken head mask, completing the imagery with the feathers from the chicken and makes some wings from old umbrellas. At the store buys the umbrellas at, Beltinsky is buying sundry household utensils which he then takes back to his garage at home and fashions unusual objects out of them.

Meanwhile Kula is working on an electronic device which includes mannequin arms, all the while adoringly fixated on the TV news when presented by Beltinska. With her husband ignoring her, Beltinska buys herself two large carp which she secretly takes care of. Loubalova goes out shopping too, buying three very large, thick candles. Finally while on her rounds, Malková sneaks off to buy loaves of bread, from which she scoops out the middle and rolls into tiny balls.

Even if I went into great detail of the actions of these people there is a very strong chance you’d still not be able to figure out exactly what the main destination is. That is not just what Svankmajer is banking on to keep you watching, but he presents each situation in such an unfiltered and engaging manner that one is absorbed anyway. It is almost too ridiculous to imagine that watching a man mould lumps of clay and pasting torn up pages of porn mags onto this chicken head shaped construction makes for engrossing viewing but that is what it is.

Svankmajer may present his cast as a creepy and deviant bunch, whose actions are carried out on the sly with many a fervent glance over their shoulders but they are also presented as real people, just like you and me. With the only exception of Mrs. Loubalova who seems to have a lofty idea of her own meagre standing by wearing deliberately conspicuous attire to go out in (think Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances), everyone of the main leads can be encountered on any street on any given day.

Perhaps this was Svankmajer’s whole point – that we never know what goes on behind closed doors or who is really behind the facades of the people we see walking down the street. Or maybe it was to explore the maxim of “whatever floats your boat” with the intention of discovering how far into the realms of absurdity one can take this philosophy and expose it for either comical or disturbance sake. Not that the cast are into anything *that* perverse or unsettling per se, but their paths to pleasure and sexual fulfilment aren’t exactly close to the conventional either.

As to what these extremes are will not be disclosed in this review – if you so wish to find out watch this film for yourself, I won’t spoil them. Suffice to say the pay off is typical abstract and off kilter for Svankmajer and certainly makes one wonder if such people do exist. These peccadilloes are more weird than perverse but nonetheless in some cases leave one bewildered as to where the pleasure lies while in other it is blindingly obvious. Svankmajer is also to be congratulated in his ability to bring theses disparate threads and personalities together and throw in a nice twist at the end to boot.

A mostly live action affair, Svankmajer’s trademark stop motion animation makes its appearance in the final act during the – pardon the pun – climax of the various threads, bringing a surreal and decidedly eerie touch to the proceedings. This features mostly in the scenes involving Pivonka and Mrs. Loubalova’s oddball fetishes heightening the already creepy sensation of these bizarre scenarios have created.

The biggest problem with a film like this is deciding if one actually liked or enjoyed it or not. Since we can assume Svankmajer is making films as a personal artistic endeavour, are we supposed to be entertained by a film like Conspirators Of Pleasure or do we simply marvel at its boldness and esoteric view of modern society? It is more in the latter we find ourselves with this film yet there is something immensely watchable about it and the easy charm with which it captures our attention is not to be understated.

Not a film for everyone, certainly too baffling and unconventional for mainstream audiences but a very unique and unquestionably original work to recommend for film fans with adventurous tastes.