Synopsis: The latest provocation from surrealist master Jan Svankmajer (Little Otik) deliriously combines live action, stop-motion animation, kinky sex, Euro-trash violence, black comedy and lots of frisky meat puppets. In (supposedly) nineteenth-century France, a young man named Jean Berlot becomes caught up in the nightmarish world of a mysterious, decadent Marquis (Jan Triska, The People Vs. Larry Flynt): orgiastic black masses, “therapeutic” funerals and an asylum with a smorgasbord of macabre treatments and tarred-and-feathered doctors. Described by Svankmajer himself in a prologue to the film as a “philosophical horror film,” Lunacy is loosely based on two short stories by Edgar Allan Poe and inspired by the works of the Marquis de Sade.
eyelights: its demented humour. its surrealistic quality. its commentary on religion, social mores, sanity and lunacy.
eyesores: its nihilistic perspective.
‘Šílení’ is a motion picture by Jan Švankmajer, the writer-director of ‘Neco z Alenky’ and ‘Spiklenci slasti‘. Released in 2005, the Czech film tells the story of Jean who, on his way home from his mother’s funeral, is befriended by an eccentric Marquis who takes him to his mansion and introduces him to his personal brand of lunacy. It is loosely inspired by two Edgar Allen Poe short stories as well as the works of the Marquis de Sade.
In the film’s intro, Švankmajer tells us that the picture’s subject is “how to run a lunatic asylum”. Whether he was being honest or just being facetious, it’s difficult to take him seriously when he’s being interrupted by some stop-motion animation of a tongue crawling on the floor. Strange, you might think, but this is exactly the sort of weird and surrealistic fodder that peppered his other films; this is par for the course.
Once he’s done, either to make his point or to shake up the uninitiated, we are shown a carcass drop all of its guts, again in stop-motion. So weird. In fact, the whole picture serves up stop-motion animated animal parts and meat moving around rooms, going into meat grinders, …etc., to carnival music – as transition material between scenes. It’s utterly wacko, but it gives the picture a trippy quality that’s kind of appealing.
It’s likely very fitting contextually, given that madness is the topic of the day. In fact, a part of me wondered if perhaps he wasn’t making a comment on the state of psychiatry in society, wherein people are sometimes treated inhumanly, at the very least unempathically, like slabs of meat. The fact remains that, while we’ve made progress, it wasn’t so long ago that we butchered and tortured people for the sake of mental health.
As the film progresses, Jean becomes enamoured with a pretty redhead who is being used by the Marquis in some of his sadomasochistic celebrations at the chapel on his property. When he discovers that she’s a nurse in the local sanatorium, which the Marquis makes him take a tour of, he falls under her spell. Through her he discovers that the Marquis and the head of the facility have kidnapped the real staff and taken over the asylum.
So he endeavours to help her release the original staff, who have been tarred and feathered and left in a dark basement cell. But he discovers that the captives were actually more demented and brutal than even their mad captors: The head is a religious zealot who believes the mind can only be healed through the body – he swears by a 13-step program of physical torture and mutilation. At least the crazies were moderately peaceful.
Although the plot is very simple, and perhaps predictable to some, I found that ‘Šílení’ raised its questions really well – not just about mental health, but also about religion and morality (one supposes that the Marquis in the picture is likely meant as a doppelgänger for de Sade, after all. Let’s just that he’s rather opinionated). There were enough substantial -if brief- discussions between the characters to tease the intellect.
And it was a good complement to the weirdness: It made me reflect on modern mental health care all the while throwing at me Jean’s bizarre nightmares, the Marquis’ anachronism (it’s in modern times, but he leads a 16th century lifestyle), the Marquis’ fetishistic ceremonies (which found him ranting at God while putting nails in a statue of Jesus), and the ridiculousness of the sanatorium (Chickens everywhere? Tobogganing down stairs? WTF?).
So, ultimately, I found ‘Šílení’ rather entertaining. It’s not grand cinema, but it strikes a fine balance between demented humour and serious discussions of our social mores. It’s a bit grim at times, given its subject matter, but it certainly makes up for it by being trippy – which is an attribute that I quite enjoy. I would definitely recommend it to fans of Švankmajer, as well as fans of Luis Buñuel, Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch.
You know, people who love to highlight -and even revel in- the madness of everyday life.
Date of viewing: April 18, 2016