With his latest feature-length release, Jan í…Â vankmajer promises an atmospheric gothic brew of Edgar Allan Poe and the Marquis de Sade set in a lunatic asylum, full of catalepsy, premature burial and kinky satanism. The true mystery of Lunacy, however, is how í…Â vankmajer can have come up with such a dull and undistinguished film. His most celebrated works such as Alice and Little Otik (Otesí¡nek) mix live action with animation to startling effect, but here the animation is peripheral and perfunctory. A motif of severed body parts threads its way through the action in tableaux separating live action sequences. The credits feature naíÂ¯ve cartoon tarot-ish playing cards depicting mutilation which also reappear later in an enigmatic board game. What, one wonders at first, is the significance of these merrily dancing tongues and eyes, and these eyeless and tongueless playing-card figures? In the end, however, once all has been explained (I won’t bore you with the details), their tantalizing, gratuitous quality seems a sham. The real problem is that the animation does not mesh with the overall art direction. It is tacked on, its exuberance forced, wholly subordinate to a rather tired thesis. Indeed, the film as a whole is just too significant, too allegorical.
From the very start, there is no room for anything to breathe or resonate. í…Â vankmajer himself appears on the screen to deliver a far from fresh speech on psychiatry and the modern world: we are caught between extremes of discipline and liberty, and end up living with the worst of both worlds. Doubtless new things remain to be done with this theme, but here it dates the film to its director’s youth, to a very sixties convergence of surrealism and anti-psychiatry. The story concerns a young man, Jean Berlot, who is prone to lucid dreams featuring two leering, burly, shaven-headed goons pursuing him with a straitjacket. Having trashed his hotel room in the throes of this dream, Berlot is rescued by the ‘Marquis’, whose anachronistic costume and tendency to gales of insane laughter go largely unremarked by those around him. At this point, there are promising signs: the Marquis’ coach and horses trundling preposterously along the motorway is nice. But once Berlot has been taken into the Marquis’ castle, and changed into ancien régime attire, the ambiguity of setting largely disappears. As Berlot spies on a sort of black mass/orgy we are firmly in the world of 70s art-trash gothic. As the Marquis hammers nails into a crucifix, his followers gorge themselves on chocolate cake before being fellated under the table by nubile wenches in monks’ cowls. The sexual politics are fairly 70s too: the girls have been selected for a quite particular quality of breast and not much else.
Having said this, Charlota requires slightly more involved discussion. She first appears right at the beginning as a wan face caught by Berlot at the window of a departing bus. Now in the gothic setting she seems to try to escape from the Marquis’ rather hum-drum orgy. In the next phase of the film she moves centre stage. The Marquis traces Berlot’s persecution dreams back to his mother’s death, incarcerated in Charenton. The cure he proposes involves a sort of reverse psychology: spend some time in a lunatic asylum. At the asylum, Charlota reappears as the alleged daughter of Dr Murlloppe and once more appeals to Berlot to help her escape. The lunatics, she claims, have mutinied and taken over the asylum. The true director, Dr CoulmiíÂ¨re, is locked up in the cellar. What we see when Charlota takes Berlot downstairs are creatures whose identity is obscured by tar and feathers, but whose outline suggests hulking aggression rather than a role in the caring professions. One of the film’s most visually accomplished scenes comes with the release of these fleshy demons, hurtling out of the hatches and straight back into their functions as brutal riot-police of madness. Poor lunatics, celebrating a year of freedom with an extended pillow fight: in a blizzard of feathers they are truncheoned back into their boxes. For, who would have guessed it, the lunatics were the better custodians of chaos. Dr CoulmiíÂ¨re and his goons now have a free hand to reinstitute their regime of brutality and mutilation. Now it only remains for Berlot’s nightmare to be made real. All Charlota’s fault!
Misogyny by numbers. Over the course of the film, Charlota has gone from defenceless waif to merciless whore following a depressingly familiar pattern. í…Â vankmajer doubtless wants us to see her as an ambiguous and troubling figure, but she isn’t. The moment where she does embody a genuine tension (as opposed to a tedious duality) is, tellingly, one that í…Â vankmajer has explored much more effectively in the past. Charlota’s trips to the cellar to feed the monstrous attendants cannot but recall Alzbetka in Little Otik. What leads a little girl to lure her neighbours into the maw of a ravenous log is never programmatically explained, but a mixture of compassion and a desire to see the cruelty of a folk-tale played out is implied. In Little Otik, í…Â vankmajer presents ‘normal’ desires remorselessly driving people into grotesque and deadly circumstances, and the whole thing is played out with grim humour. Burdened with a horribly protruding thesis, Lunacy just cannot generate the sort of tensions and ambiguities it say it wants to, and Charlota’s perfunctory innocent/whore shifts are the surest symptom of this.
Lunacy made me wish at various points I was watching a number of other films: some of the late eighteenth-century interiors brought Werner Herzog’s Kaspar Hauser fondly to mind, and the feather-storm in the asylum had me dreaming of Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite. Apart from the echo of Little Otik, it made me think very little of í…Â vankmajer. Back to the drawing-board.