Czech director Jan Svankmajer has a rare knack for making seemingly harmless imagery disturbing, even disgusting. For example, “Lunacy” begins with an on-screen introduction by Svankmajer, but it’s interrupted by a piece of meat, brought back to wriggling life to crawl across the floor. The film is filled with similar interludes depicting the stop-motion animated adventures of meat, set to lively harpsichord music. In a different context, these might be cute; here, they’re squirm inducing. The effect is enhanced by the fact that Svankmajer is obviously fiddling around with real meat, rather than CGI. Playfully, he’s messing with the boundaries between life and death. Although the meat never does anything too horrific, it evokes the sexually transmitted parasites of David Cronenberg’s “They Came From Within.” As a symbol, it’s a constant reminder of the characters’—and the audience’s—physicality. Meat isn’t the only object Svankmajer makes sinister; a scene of men eating chocolate cake takes on unmistakable scatological overtones, reminiscent of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s infamous “Salo,” as the chocolate sticks to their mouths and facial hair.
Jean Berlot (Pavel Liska) is troubled by nightmares in which he’s forced into a mental hospital. On the way back from his mother’s funeral, he meets a charming Marquis (Jan Triska), who invites him to spend the night in his castle. Berlot witnesses a Black Mass of sorts, in which the Marquis stages an orgy and throws communion wafers over the bodies of naked men and women. The next day, the Marquis chokes to death on a banana. However, things aren’t what they seem, as the Marquis rises again after his burial. It turns out that the whole event was a staged exercise in “preventive therapy,” designed to help the Marquis live with his fear of being buried alive, a fate his mother suffered. The Marquis thinks that such therapy can help Berlot and brings him to an asylum where the patients have free reign.
Like many filmmakers who started out with experimental shorts, narrative didn’t come easily to Svankmajer, who began as an animator. His first two features, “Alice” and “Faust,” worked mostly as storehouses of imagery, rather than exercises in storytelling. This approach works fine for 10-minute films, but at 90 minutes, it becomes a bit wearying. With the 1997 “Conspirators of Pleasure,” Svankmajer finally seemed to get a grasp on narrative.
“Lunacy” is full of imaginative visuals, albeit mostly confined to the animated segments and marred by dim cinematography, but it also works as a story. Although based on two Edgar Allen Poe stories, it recalls John Fowles’ novel “The Magus” in its sense of roleplay and gamesmanship, with the Marquis constantly creating mindfucks for Berlot.
In his introduction, Svankmajer states that “Lunacy” is a debate about running a mental hospital. He says, “One [method] encourages absolute freedom—the other, the old-fashioned, well-tried method of control and punishment. But there is also a third one, which combines and exacerbates the very worst aspects of the other two. And that is the madhouse we live in today.”
Although set in 19th-century France, “Lunacy” is full of deliberate anachronisms. As a political allegory, it feels like a reflection on the ‘60s and its aftermath—a problematic but liberating chaos is replaced by a conservative backlash, which preserves its predecessors’ sadism but expresses it far more hypocritically. Svankmajer calls himself a card-carrying surrealist. In Communist Czechoslovakia, it retained its radical political charge, which has long since been co-opted by art world acceptance and pop culture dilution in the U.S. and Western Europe.
Sade was a hero to the original surrealists, but Svankmajer seems a little more ambivalent. It’s noteworthy that his libertinism has its limits—women are always objects, whether tied up against their will in orgies or used as human canvases at the asylum, in his games, rather than equal participants. In “Salo,” Pasolini went further, linking Sade’s fantasies of torture to the Nazi concentration camps. For Svankmajer, though, the worst thing about the Marquis’ ethos is the reactionary response it provoked. Triska makes the Marquis an appealing character, especially compared to the deliberate blandness of Liska’s performance as Berlot, which suggests one of Tim Burton’s man-child heroes on Thorazine.
Despite evoking several different historical periods, “Lunacy” ultimately uses the past to speak about the present’s dilemmas. Svankmajer makes this clear in his final scene, which makes a daring leap from the asylum to the supermarket. The old guard has won the upper hand, trapping meat under plastic. Is there an escape route to true freedom? Without mindlessly endorsing Sade’s philosophy, “Lunacy” suggests that we can learn something from it. We may be little more than meat, but meat still has a life of its own.