Czech Republic (2005) Dir. Jan Svankmajer
“Believe only half of what you see and nothing that you hear.”
This aphorism from The System Of Doctor Tarr And Professor Fether by Edgar Allen Poe provides the framework for this surreal horror film from Czech provocateur Jan Svankmajer. Perhaps not a horror film in the truest sense but suitably grotesque and unsettling in its own way.
In 19th century France, Jean Berlot (Pavel Liska) is haunted by a recurring nightmare of two men trying to force him into a straightjacket following the death of mother who spent her final days in a sanitarium. Jean befriends a Marquis (Jan Triska) who invites him back to his estate to recover, where he witnesses his host in a bizarre ritualistic orgy involving an unwilling young woman (Anna Geislerova).
Jean decides to leave but the Marquis offers him another option, taking him to the asylum of his friend Dr. Murlloppe (Jaroslav Dusek) who practices “preventive therapy”, allowing inmates freedom instead of suppression. Jean recognises Murlloppe from the orgy and his daughter Charlotte as the unwilling girl, who confides in him that she is being held against her will. But who is telling the truth?
Svankmajer opens this film with a personal introduction explaining what we are in for, claiming it is a horror film exploring the best way to run an asylum. Yet, clearly there is another motive here illustrated by the cutaways of stop motion animation, Svankmajer’s forte, involving meat, animal body parts and similar imagery to put us off our dinner.
It may have a potent meaning or it might just be Svankmajer having fun, I am not sure. The startling closing image, a piece of steak in a shrink-wrapped pack on a supermarket shelf still throbbing like it was alive, might be about the cruel cycle of life or is possibly an anti-meat statement. Or maybe it isn’t – I’m clearly not smart enough to divine the proper meaning if there is one.
Regardless of how off kilter this film gets, and it does wander into some very abstruse territory, the underlining cynicism doesn’t go unnoticed. Whether you take the animated sequences as curious fun or grotesque adjuncts to the main story they don’t conflict with the rest of the film which plays everything straight, and to great effect.
Jean is a nervous wreck, his vivid nightmare so frighteningly real that he wrecks the room fighting off his imaginary attackers. The Marquis thinks Jean is uptight and needs to succumb to his inner desires, throwing in a rant or two against religion (Jean is devout) and mother nature as life’s biggest oppressors and hypocrites.
Be that true or not, it doesn’t necessarily mean sexual perversion is the way to go, and the creepiness of the Marquis – an obvious sketch of the Marquis de Sade – isn’t exactly the best endorsement for this either. Dr. Murlloppe’s indulgence for changing his false beard on a daily basis also sets off a few alarm bells for Jean but none more so that Charlotte, the timorous nurse Jean saw being used as a sex toy the night before.
After Charlotte sends Jean a note asking for help to escape Jean decides to stay at the asylum, while the Marquis tells Jean that Charlotte is a harlot (thanks Iron Maiden) and isn’t to be trusted, her feminine charms likely to be his downfall. The evidence is very much in Charlotte’s favour but the chaos of a free reigning asylum setting is a wonderful cover for any improprieties committed, the classic “hide a tree in a forest” scenario.
The asylum doesn’t appear until the second half of the film, meaning the first half, with its protracted detailing of the Marquis’ decadent lifestyle, appears tenuously relevant. Along with his mute servant Dominic (Pavel Novy) – his tongue was cut out – the Marquis plays an extremely cruel prank on Jean to rid him of his nightmares which fails, but exposes the unhinged Marquis as someone with issues of his own that need addressing.
It’s not that easy to determine where Svankmajer is going with the story in the first hour, nor indeed what his message is since he claims to be comparing medical practices yet no such thing has occurred yet. The pace picks up in the second half and the final act is where everything is revealed – well almost everything; the ominous Treatment no 13 remains a mystery but perhaps it’s better left that way.
Most people automatically assume horror to be “blood and guts”; there is plenty of the latter here, just not human and are animated. The entrails and organs of a dead animal take on a sentient form as they reconnect with other animal carcasses or simply get up to mischief. Less amusing is the sight of two animal tongues slobbering over each other in a faux coitus arrangement.
The only sequence that did make some sense about the aforementioned circle of life notion features chickens (a regular motif of Svankmajer’s) eating pieces of minced meat fresh from the grinder, then laying eggs which hatch to reveal chunks of meat which are then put back into the grinder to feed the chickens again. Heavy stuff indeed.
I was fully aware that going into this film that Svankmajer is an acquired taste and that I may not be onboard with everything he presents. This remains true, although the second hour achieves much more than the first. Svankmajer has a knack of assaulting the senses without bludgeoning us with garish, eye-popping imagery, he simply thrusts his camera right into the heart of the scene and unsettles us with this frankness.
Whilst Lunacy will have a receptive audience among those who can decipher the symbolism and revel in the surrealism more than me, I once again will have to admit defeat, and simply settle for appreciating Svankmajer and his works instead of being in awe of them.