Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Lunacy (April 26th and 29th at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[LUNACY screens Thursday April 26th at 6:45 pm and Sunday April 29th at 8:25 pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]

Review by Charles Cassady, Jr.
If you use a Jan Svenkmajer movie as a date flick, know your relationship is doomed. I speak from bitter experience. As consolation on dark, lonely nights, at least you'll have seen a Jan Svenkmajer film. The Czech surrealist won renown worldwide as an animator of macabre stop-motion shorts before turning to macabre live-action features (FAUST, CONSPIRATORS OF PLEASURE among them). Even using flesh-and-blood Eastern European actors as material rather than modeling clay, Svankmajer still punctuates narratives with interludes of skittery stop-motion nightmare imagery, both playful and terrifying. CGI can go to hell. A hell designed and adapted by Svenkmajer.

His LUNACY, from 2005, begins with a warning. On camera, Svenkmajer dolefully declares art is "all but dead," just an indulgence for pretentious narcissists (wow, Cleveland, Svenkmajer must have made it down to the IngenuityFest once or twice). Sort-of-consequently, what you are about to watch is a `degenerate' horror movie with an embedded ideological debate over how to run an asylum. Total freedom for the mad rabble, or brute discipline? But it's just a horror film, so sorry.

When Jan Svenkmajer has to do Lemony Snicket, art truly is dead, and LUNACY is a pastiche of Edgar Allen Poe and the Marquis de Sade, absinthe-laced with deep pessimism. Were it not for the stop-motion and an anachronistic mix of the present (superhighways, computers, flashlights) and gothic-horror tropes of powdered wigs, crypts, naked temptresses and maniac aristos of previous centuries, you'd say this was a Werner Herzog flick from the 1970s. Maybe with Klaus Kinski and/or Bruno S.

Jean (Pavel Liska) is an orphaned, slightly simple-minded looney-bin resident liberated from his institution by the nameless Marquis (Jan Triska), who conducts ceremonial sex, blasphemy and premature burials beneath a defaced Christ icon. Amused at Jean's taking offense, the Marquis introduces his guest to another asylum - this one run in accordance with his libertine philosophy. Inmates can do as they please, and the chief physician, a friend/disciple of the Marquis, seems crazy too.

Svenkmajer has flatly told us the asylum is a metaphor for society today, the plot framing a debate about anarchy vs. order. There's a surprise twist, however, familiar to all those who have read the sardonic Poe source story "The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether" (previously adapted once or twice for Euro-horror flicks that weren't as bad as I expected). I won't ruin it here, but the finale declares that no matter how wicked and godless the Marquis may be, mainstream society's alternatives of brute conformity and traditional morality are worse. Far worse.

For extra bonus Sade-ism, think of the virginal and pious mental defective Jean as a variation on Forrest Gump, who finds life no box of chocolates. Indeed, it's a butcher shop. In Svenkmajer's stop-motion inserts a pig splits open and pours its guts; cattle tongues, eyes, brains and meat flip-flop about; cattle organs simulate sex or migrate home to fleshless livestock skulls. Some of this represents Jean's delusions, some of it comments on the action, and some seems distracting marginalia - the pretentious art-house equivalent of those fx-makeup grotesqueries that David Cronenberg used to scattered around in movies like VIDEODROME or EXISTENZ that - to me anyway - always seemed to have little motivation other than that's what the director's fanbase paid to see (I am glad Cronenberg seems to have gotten that out of his system).

These creep-outs come in brief bursts. Maybe the artist was under duress to do them quickly, before his nonhuman `talent' started to rot under hot studio lamps. Art is dead, no arguments there. I can't recommend LUNACY very strongly for beginners, vegetarians, or those outside Svenkmajer's following (or dating couples). But nobody who sees it will be asking, "Where's the beef?" (2 1/2 stars out of 4)

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