Maker of fabulous worlds, Alejandro Jodorowsky is himself a wondrous, many-tentacled, creature. Born in Chile of Russian Jewish parents, he first moved to Mexico and later to France. Best known as a film-maker, he has also worked as a circus clown, stage actor, mime artist, puppeteer, author, avant-garde theatre director, graphic novelist, Tarot reader and psycho-shaman… Belonging nowhere, unfettered by the constraints of any one art form, Jodorowksy has been free to let the wildest visions sprout out of his extravagant imagination for the last forty years, distilling visceral images, provocative spirituality and lashings of abrasive humour into a head-turning bootleg firewater.
Greatly influenced by Surrealism, Jodorowsky travelled to Paris to meet André Breton in 1953 and was a fervent reader of one-time Surrealist author Antonin Artaud – one of many artists expelled from the movement by the narrow-minded, doctrinaire Breton. Artaud’s revolutionary manifesto ‘The Theatre of Cruelty’ provided the foundation for Jodorowsky’s conception of his own art. Believing that theatre had lost its emotional power, Artaud called for a violently expressive, physical theatre that would ‘restore an impassioned convulsive concept of life to theatre’. Rejecting the traditional reliance on the written text, the Theatre of Cruelty would use movement, gesture, shouts, rhythmical pounding, puppets and masks in order to transmit meaning through an urgent physicality. Shows would be like ‘exorcisms’, aiming to revive the magic, ritualistic function of theatre. Artaud’s radical views and anarchic spirit permeate all of Jodorowsky’s films, and nowhere is this clearer than in Fando & Lis.
In 1962 Jodorowsky founded the Mouvement Panique with Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal and French artist Roland Topor (author of the novel that inspired Roman Polanski’s The Tenant). The official Jodorowsky website explains that the name was chosen ‘in allusion to the god Pan, who manifests himself through three basic elements: terror, humour and simultaneity’. An anti-movement rather than a movement according to Arrabal, it brought together a bunch of contrary, irreverent individuals who embraced chaos and excess, intuition and the irrational, savage sexuality and dissent as a way of life. Billed as a Panic film, Jodorowsky’s first feature Fando & Lis was a loose adaptation of a play by Arrabal, which Jodorowsky had directed in Paris. True to Artaud’s precepts, Jodorowsky based the film solely on his recollection of the play in order to avoid following the text too closely. It premiered at the Acapulco Film Festival in 1968, soon after the massacre of peaceful demonstrators by the police in Mexico City. In the resulting tense climate, the blasphemous provocations of Fando & Lis proved too much for the audience and a riot broke out in the auditorium, forcing Jodorowsky to flee the theatre. The film was subsequently banned in Mexico.
Forty years later Fando & Lis is still as inflammatory as cinema can get. It’s a scream, a punch in the guts, an eye-gouging journey through what looks like nothing less than the lowest circles of Dante’s Inferno. On a quest to find the mythical paradisiacal city of Tar, the splenetic Fando pushes his paralysed lover Lis on a four-wheel cart through a hellish world of derelict towns and barren mountains peopled by decomposing corpses, mad priests and drag queens. Bodies writhe in mud before standing up, as if emerging from the primal matter, staring at Fando and Lis like dead-eyed zombies. Jarring sounds add to the disquieting images: buzzing flies convey the stench of the rotting corpses, percussive instruments beat as loud as a panicked heart. Going round and round in the wasteland, the lovers are unable to find a way out of their nightmares, mere puppets whose strings are pulled by a cruel god-like puppeteer not unlike the one played by Jodorowsky himself in a scene from Lis’ past.
On their way to Tar, Fando and Lis come across a group of sophisticated ladies and gents drinking cocktails and playing jazz amid the rubble of a razed town. While the dapper men mock Lis’ infirmity the ladies take Fando as their sexual play thing and thoroughly humiliate him. Later a mob of towering, sullen women armed with watermelons play bowling with Fando as the pin. A crowd of sinister worshippers gather around Lis’ coffin and cut off pieces of her flesh, which they consume in a blasphemous parody of the Catholic host. A herd of drag queens carry a protesting Fando away and dress him up as a woman. Jodorowsky’s world is full of predatory packs of people that mass around exceptional individuals, wanting a piece of them – literally in Lis’ case – demanding miracles, expecting to be fulfilled or enlightened. Animal noises – or the sound of clicking scissors in the coffin scene – heighten the sense of menace. Idolisation doesn’t go without aggression and the parody of the Catholic ritual is not vacuous provocation but the revelation of its disturbing nature: what the host truly is about is nothing less than the cannibalistic consumption of the saint/saviour/master’s body to partake of its god-like quality. But while the character of Lis already announces Jodorowsky’s later preoccupations with the messianic individual in El Topo and The Holy Mountain, here the threatening gangs want less a guru than a sexual toy, an object they can play with, possess and destroy.
As in El Topo and Santa Sangre Freudian neuroses are played out in grandiloquent, baroque excess. In the desolate mountains Fando is force-fed by his dying mother, a formidable figure who is more drag queen diva than homely matriarch. Elsewhere he is assaulted by lewd, toothless old hags, one of which crushes peaches in her hands when he refuses her sexual advances. Terrorized by mother-like figures, Fando takes it out on the helpless Lis. As passive as a doll she gets dragged this way and that way, positioned and played with according to his whims. In a scene that echoes the violence to which she is subjected a man cuts an obscene hole into a doll before placing a snake inside. Misogynistic, Jodorowsky? Most definitely, at least here: in Fando Y Lis women are either castrating old witches or whimpering, impotent victims. But what makes it bearable is that Fando himself is a rather pathetic example of the male species. Traumatized by an overbearing mother, humiliated by the cocktail ladies, femininized by the drag queens, he is screwed-up, confused, insecure and as whiny and needy as Lis is.
Fando and Lis are a deviant, perverted version of the classic lovers. They can’t live without each other, so much so that Fando ends up handcuffing Lis and chaining her to the cart. They love each other until death parts them, that is… well, you’ll have to see what happens – needless to say it’s brutal and ferocious. ‘And when I wanted to separate myself from her I realised we formed one body with two heads’, reads the title of part 4. In Fando Y Lis love is a monstrous two-headed creature, a grotesque body formed by two needy, incomplete people, incapable of living apart but resenting the confines of this unnatural togetherness and wanting to strike out at their conjoined twin. In later Jodorowsky films the freakish nature of people’s dependency on each other will become literal: in Santa Sangre a son unites his body to that of his armless mother to become a glamorous mime artist while in El Topo a legless man on the back of an armless man makes one fully functioning sidekick.
Ultimately it is its Dionysiac quality that makes Fando Y Lis such a compelling experience: the sensory assault of the film, the savage violence it depicts, the sardonic bursts of hilarity are all an unleashing of primal instincts, a celebration of destructive excess, a cathartic release of explosive energy. Ignore all descriptions of Jodorowsky’s work as psychedelic ‘head trip’. There is no druggy vagueness here but a crap-cutting, exhilarating viciousness that makes the film timeless. Jodorowsky has been unfavourably compared to Luis Buí±uel and yet (oh sacrilege!) the latter’s much admired half-polite satires of the bourgeoisie are nowhere near as vital or violently surreal as Jodorowsky’s imaginings. And it is probably because of his supreme disrespect for any kind of facile world view – any political, religious or plain sentimental simplification of the world – that Jodorowsky has been made to linger in the cult ghetto while less radical artists were given full honours. Forty years later Fando Y Lis remains a triumph of lacerating audacity, a hysterical tale of fucked-up revolt that still pulses with dark life now. Conjuring dangerously potent visions, Jodorowsky throws you head first into the bottomless pit of grotesque pain that is life and makes you laugh all the way like a hyena. Enjoy.