by Spank The Monkey
Type the name of Jan Švankmajer into YouTube during a dull afternoon at work, and you’ll be rewarded with hours of visually inventive, intellectually playful entertainment. But you’ll probably be rewarded with a P45 as well: the world of Švankmajer is – let’s emphasise this up front – quite definitively Not Safe For Work. Unless you work in a mental institution. Or an abattoir.
Czech surrealist/animator Švankmajer has been making films for close on five decades now, but for the most part they’ve been shorts: in those fifty years, he’s directed only six full-length features. Three of them have just been released on DVD by New Wave Films, and between them they provide a convenient snapshot of his strengths and weaknesses.
Conspirators Of Pleasure, made in 1996 and the earliest film in this collection, originally came accompanied by a boast from Švankmajer that he’d made “the first erotic film without any scenes of sexual intercourse.” Instead, we follow six people ploughing six lonely, masturbatory furrows. These three men and three women require very, very specific stimuli to get themselves off. A series of voodoo rituals to create an S&M relationship by proxy. Several hundred small balls of moistened bread and a pair of hosepipes. A TV set, a joystick and four artificial arms converted into a wanking machine. You know, the usual.
The initial release of Conspirators roughly coincided with Westminster Council’s ban on screenings of Crash, and to a degree Švankmajer is doing the same thing as Cronenberg (and Ballard before him): examining the mechanics of human desire when applied to a fetish that’s just beyond our comprehension. He has great fun assembling sequences of images that aren’t in any way explicit, but at the same time couldn’t be classified at anything lower than 18. (Rejected screengrab for the top of this section: a collection of torn-up porno mags smeared with wallpaper paste.)
With a brisk running time of just under 75 minutes, Conspirators is a feature film with the pacing of a short: it sets up a series of wild ideas, explores them, and then gets the hell out without feeling the need to impose a totally coherent narrative on them. It marks the point where a Švankmajer feature moved from being an animated film with live-action inserts, to the other way round – there isn’t any animation at all until the final half-hour. All of this means that Conspirators isn’t the usual barrage of imagery that we’d come to expect from Švankmajer at this stage of his career: in the manner of its subject matter, it starts quietly, then builds in ferocity and perversity until reaching its shuddering climax.
If there’s an overall theme to be found here, it’s in the way that these people act alone, yet are tangentially connected (as the title suggests). For the most part, they’re largely oblivious that anyone else may feel the way that they do, but they recognise the signs in someone’s eyes almost immediately. Which makes watching this film on DVD on your own a very unnerving experience: as you watch the characters being stimulated by a variety of unspeakable ideas, you realise that’s what you’re doing.
We move forward to 2005, and Lunacy, a film I found fantastically disappointing when it was first released. It’s possible to make excuses for it, and there’s one major one to consider: Švankmajer’s wife and close artistic collaborator, Eva, died during its production. That could explain why it’s such a grim piece, with very little of his characteristic humour.
On a second viewing, I found a few more things to like: notably the film’s subtle use of anachronism, meaning we’re never quite sure in which time period the story is set. When it opens, Jean Berlot (Pavel Liska) is distraught following the death of his mother in a mental institution, and has paranoid delusions that he’s heading for the same fate. After a public breakdown, he’s taken into the care of the Marquis (Jan Triska), owner of the most inauthentic laugh in cinema.
In his over-detailed on-camera introduction, Švankmajer describes his ‘horror film’ as being influenced by de Sade and Poe, so you can imagine what an evening at the Marquis’ turns out to be like. (Rejected screengrab for the top of this section: a nun, her face smeared with what every previous shot in the sequence has carefully persuaded us is chocolate cake.) But the Marquis somehow persuades Jean to meet up with his good friend Doctor Murlloppe, the boss of a lunatic asylum with an incredibly lenient attitude towards its patients. Possibly too lenient?
The problem with Lunacy is this. Jan Švankmajer is one of the best visual storytellers working in film, able to convey extraordinarily complex character studies purely through the use of images. (Did I mention that Conspirators Of Pleasure is silent?) Lunacy, on the other hand, is told largely through its dialogue, with huge swathes of its running time given over to exposition and treatises on mental illness. It’s not that Švankmajer handles this badly, it’s just frustrating seeing his talent shackled by mere language. Particularly when the imagery he uses here recycles over-familiar motifs from de Sade.
The animation that typically enlivens a Švankmajer film is limited to a series of bumpers between scenes, in which slabs of reanimated meat re-enact parody versions of what’s just happened in the live action. But sadly, it’s not enough, and these sequences only seem to be there because he knows we expect them from him. It’s possible that if a lesser-known director had handled this material in the same way, it wouldn’t have been such a letdown. But because it’s Švankmajer, it is.
At the time, I’d hoped that Lunacy was just a temporary lull in Švankmajer’s creativity. Five years later in 2010, Surviving Life confirmed this was indeed the case: it’s a hellaciously smart, wildly funny, visually staggering piece of work, counterbalancing its predecessor by focussing on the lighter side of mental illness. Eugene (Vaclav Hebus) has met the girl of his dreams (Klara Issova) – literally, in that she’s started appearing to him in his sleep. Her name is… well, it’s hard to pin down, but it’s definitely something beginning with ‘E’. Eugene seeks advice from his workmate, his doctor, his bookseller and his analyst on how he can control his dreams better, so he can spend more time with this woman.
Surviving Life is to Inception what Conspirators Of Pleasure was to Crash, although Švankmajer’s effects budget is a little smaller than Nolan’s. Actually, make that a lot smaller: in another on-camera introduction, the director apologises that lack of money has forced him to make the film using animated paper cut-outs, “like the old children’s cartoons.” For British audiences, the reference point is more likely to be Terry Gilliam’s work for Monty Python, especially in an early sequence where buildings sprout legs and start walking around.
But the style slowly transmutes to become something distinctively Švankmajerian – the mix of monochrome and colour, the switch to live action for details and closeups, the extreme focus on people’s mouths to emphasise specific words. The return to animation as his prime medium means that he once again has complete control over everything that appears on the screen, which is crucial in a film that moves so fluidly between dreams and reality. (Rejected screengrab for the top of this section: Eugene and his dream woman tentatively discuss their feelings for each other, while a truckload of fully erect teddy bears drives past in the background.)
There’s still a lot of dialogue compared with his earlier work, but it’s used to counterpoint the images rather than replace them. So, for example, the analyst’s discussion of Eugene’s mental state is accompanied by a running battle between the portraits of Freud and Jung hanging in her surgery. And the imagery isn’t just dream weirdness used for its own sake: it may seem that way initially, but the slow reveal of what’s hiding behind Eugene’s dreamworld is a satisfying story in its own right, wrapped up in a surprisingly moving final scene.
Surviving Life and Conspirators Of Pleasure are among the finest things Švankmajer has ever made: I found Lunacy to be a disappointment by comparison, although newcomers to the director may find they’re not so hampered by prior expectations. All three of these newly-released DVDs come with interesting special features, including a selection of text pieces intended as background reading on the topics of psychology and sexuality. But really, you shouldn’t need those. Jan Švankmajer is a surrealist in the best sense of the word: there’s no right or wrong way to interpret, or react to, these images. All you need is a mind open enough to accept them in the first place.
Surviving Life is available now on DVD and iTunes download from New Wave Films. Conspirators Of Pleasure and Lunacy are released on June 25th.
Spank The Monkey has so much trouble writing these biographical paragraphs at the end that he’s thinking about tendering them out to third parties. Applications via The Unpleasant Lair of Spank the Monkey please.