While he's well aware of foot fetishists in the world, Judge Dennis Prince confesses he's never encountered a cow tongue fetishist—until now, that is.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, what you are about to see is a horror film—with all the degeneracy peculiar to that genre. It is not a work of art. Today, art is all but dead anyway."—Director Jan Svankmajer, introducing Lunacy.
It's doubtful that mainstream America is ready for the likes of Lunacy (Sílení), the latest from the Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer. Truth be told, I wasn't quite ready for its unsettling delivery, as it proceeded to share a disturbed view of the human condition amid the frail and fraught experience called Life. Yet, as I quickly learned, I was about to be subjected to the most unusual dark ride ever.
Following the funeral of his interred mother, Frenchman Jean Berlot (Pavel Liska) begins suffering recurring nightmares in which he imagines himself dragged, frantic, off to an asylum, and duly straight-jacketed. After having wreaked havoc on his boarding house room, the terrorized Jean is befriended by a mysterious Marquis (Jan Triska), who offers living quarters to Jean within a mansion setting. Once there, Jean becomes understandably discomforted when he spies the Marquis in the midst of a sadomasochistic ritual with a presumed unwilling participant, Charlotte (Anna Geislerová). Unexpectedly, the Marquis dies after choking and Jean is instructed to place the master's body in the family crypt, helped by a servant. But, death has not come so quick, as Jean finds the Marquis enjoying a breakfast in the tomb on the subsequent day, his host explaining his theory of "purgative therapy"—as he feared being buried alive, he arranged to confront and control his phobia by experiencing premature burial. This is the same approach the Marquis recommends to Jean to cure his nightmares of commitment—that he should actually commit himself to an asylum and therefore conquer his fear. Jean agrees to subject himself to the odd treatment, but only after being begged by Charlotte to help her escape the asylum herself. Of course, the asylum is not managed in the traditional method, as the attending Dr. Murlloppe (Jaroslav Dusek) insists on a therapy that allows the inmates to run free to cure their sick minds and suffering bodies.
In a nutshell, this is what you'll find going on in Lunacy, a picture that borrows from two works of Edgar Allen Poe—The Premature Burial and The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether—spiced up by the exploits of the Marquis de Sade. Essentially, this is not a family picture, and will likely only appeal to adult tastes that savor the art house experience of severe surrealism. The performances are universally adept, with Triska practically stealing the show, as each actor somehow delves into their character and attending situation with abandon, further solidifying the mental and physical chaos that abounds. There's no shortage of material that will likely offend the unwary, including various sequences of rape, orgies, and blatant attacks on Christianity. Equally apparent are Svankmajer's opinions of "civilization," which he clearly feels is nothing more than a show put on by humans hoping to convince themselves and others that they are in full possession of reason, rationale, and relevance. Svankmajer all but breaks wind at mankind's proclamations of sanity and sensibility; insisting, instead, that we are all pieces of animated flesh who are more often than not driven by animal lusts, mainly sexual in nature. With this as our inescapable reality, it's little wonder that human beings are patently mad, albeit well-practiced in the art of social impersonation.
Svankmajer drives his message home in a very abrupt and assailing manner, providing plenty of unnerving visions made possible through his trademark stop-motion animations, the twisted sort never imagined by the more celebrated likes of Harryhausen or Danforth. Instead, the order of the day here is meat; that's right, meat. Quick research revealed this is the "character" of choice for Svankmajer (see Meat Love), who selects the choicest cuts to populate meat-puppet shows that are singularly disgusting and none too subtle in their purpose. Following Svankmajer's insistence that humans are but meat carcasses themselves, sinewy beings driven by raw motivations and ultimately destined to decay and waste away, the meat on display plays its role as intended. And, liberally intertwined in the unwieldy narrative, these vignettes serve to further blur the line between human sanity—or the illusion thereof—and utter madness.
As you might expect, although Svankmajer appears at the beginning to proclaim this a horror film of sorts—cribbing from James Whale's proxy address to unwary audiences at the beginning of 1931's Frankenstein—it's not so much of traditional genre picture as it is an unbridled violation of social mores. Whether his view is skewed or not is up to each viewer to decide and Lunacy is the sort of film likely to spur conversations and dissertations after the final frames have flickered past. Regardless your opinion of Svankmajer's opinions, this is one film experience you're not likely to forget.
On this new DVD from Zeitgeist Films, Lunacy is presented in a widescreen anamorphic transfer framed at 1.85:1. The image looks generally good and reveals decent detail levels, but it is frequently troubled by obscuring darkness and grain that detracts from an entirely clean and consistent view of the insanity on screen. (Arguably, it nonetheless adds gritty texture to the dark and demented narrative on tap.) The audio is presented in a somewhat muddled Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix. This is of little consequence unless you're well schooled in Czech. The English subtitles will ensure you follow along, though.
As for extras, this disc includes a revealing 14-minute look into the production the film via The Making of Lunacy. This is followed by a brief collection of stills and artwork from the film. The original theatrical trailer is also on board.
At the end of the show, Lunacy raises more questions than it provides answers. It's a most unusual expression of Svankmajer's disappointment in mankind, and is the sort of film that will likely challenge you to assess your view, as well. As this was the obvious intent of the director, the film succeeds mightily. It's not for all tastes, that's for certain.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
• The Making of Lunacy
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