In his video introduction to his 2004 film Lunacy, Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer declares that he has made a horror film, not an art film, because art is all but dead. He also states that it is nothing more than an "infantile tribute" to the works of Edgar Allen Poe and the Marquis de Sade. He is, of course, in the best surrealist fashion, playing with half truths and being a bit tongue cheek, and if you haven't seen Svankmajer's work before, it is a perfect set-up for his black sense of wit.
I entered Lunacy with a little trepidation. I, like most people, discovered Svankmajer via his stop-motion shorts. It was actually a long time before I discovered he'd made the leap to feature films in 1987 with Alice. While I enjoyed Conspirators of Pleasure, Alice, Faust, and Little Otik were long form films that left me a little cold. Particularly Otik, his last movie, was such an emotionally dull slog, I wondered if Svankmajer shouldn't stick to animating inanimate objects because he was better at making them expressive than his flesh and blood actors.
Thankfully, Luncay is a real winner and, I think, is his best, most fully realized film. Oddly enough, it is also the film in which we see the least amount of his trademark stop-motion animation. Here they serve as bumpers, little breaks. Meat, cut slabs or diced, and chickens act out in vignettes that symbolically comment on the action but never interact with the actors like his stop-motion did in his other films.
Luncay has a typical Svankmajer feel, one of cold settings, dilapidated buildings with rundown furniture, effectively making the films time and place hard to peg. Freshly mourning the loss of his mother, nightmare prone traveler Jean (Pavel Liska) encounters the Marquis (Jan Triska). Dressed in Renaissance outfit, complete with wig, traveling along the interstate highway in a horse drawn coach, the eccentric Marquis appears to be from another era. His explosive, bawdy laugh and devilish glint in his eyes is further evidence of his being a bit touched in the head.
The Marquis offers Jean a place to stay and Jean accepts the accommodation because he was kicked out of his previous residence, a hotel, due to his tantrum-like nightmares which involve big, bald, bruisers putting him in a straight jacket. That first night at the Marquis home it isn't nightmares that awaken Jean, but revelry. He witnesses the Marquis and some companions engaging in a blasphemous orgy, black robed beauties orally servicing them while they eat chocolate cake, the Marquis hammering hundreds of nails into a statue of Christ while asking God, if he does indeed exist, to reveal himself and strike him down for his sacrilege. Jean also witnesses one, seemingly unwilling, participant, the lovely Charlotte (Anna Geislerová) try to run away.
The next morning, Jean denounces the Marquis actions and the Marquis gleefully argues the age old debate about why would a divine figure that supposedly loved us, create us to endure torment and impose restrictions upon us rather than allow us to be free. Before Jean can attempt to leave, the Marquis appears to choke to death. This leads to a mock burial and eventually the Marquis introducing Jean to his friend at the local sanitarium, Dr. Murlloppe, who instead of degrees on the wall has a series of fake moustaches and beards. It is an asylum where the insane are given free reign. Jean admits himself as a patient in order to help Charlotte, Murlloppe's assistant, who claims that Murlloppe and the Marquis have staged a revolt and the true administrators have been tarred and feathered and locked in the basement. Without confirming or denying, the Marquis claims that Charlotte is a hysterical, nymphomaniac, deviant, who gets off on being a victim in peril.
I'll leave the rest to your imagination, though knowing Svankmajer and de Sade, it doesn't take much to assume that the Marquis, as insane as he may be, largely speaks the truth. When the real hospital administration rears its head, with its ideas of therapy through corporal punishment, the true hypocrisy, horror, and sober-insanity of a rigid system of rules comes to light. It is Jean's true worst fears realized.
Like the introduction states, it is a love of de Sade that inspires the film, more so than Poe, who gets some very minor nods to his "The Premature Burial" and "The System of Doctor Tarr & Professor Fether." But really Svankmajer is riffing on de Sade and doing it much better than Philip Kaufaman did in the critically overpraised Quills. In terms of celebrating freedom of expression and defiance, Quills was the equivalent of a crudely scrawled dick on a truckstop bathroom wall; whereas Luncay might as well be Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ."
The DVD: Zeitgeist Video
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. All of Svankmajer's films maintain a look that, no matter how recent they are, makes them appear like they were made in the late 60's, early 70's. This roughness includes lots of soft focus, a heavy grain level, and in Lunacy's case, quite a bit of denaturation in the colors. It is a very chilly, gray film. Technically there are some issues, most noticeably some aliasing, blurring and shimmer, enough to be troublesome, but not quite enough to write off the film as a rental or purchase.
Sound: 2.0, Czech language with optional English subtitles. Svankmajer makes his films WOS (without sound) so all of the dialogue is post-dubbed. Therefore you will get the usual synch issues and, at times, slightly canny sound. Those are just the perils of the source. His sound mix is very aggressive and the musical score is minimal, something he touches upon in the liner note interview that comes with this disc.
Extras: Liner Note Interview excerpt. -- Theatrical trailer. -- Ephemera Gallery, including paintings used in the film, done by Svankmajer's wife and collaborator Eva Svankmajerová, who sadly passed away after the film was made. -- Making Of Lunacy (14:21). A bit clip heavy, this is not a formal making of featurette, but more a b-camera footage of the behind the scenes machinations, Svankmajer giving direction and the general filming.
Conclusion: While there are some issues with the transfer imagewise, really it is such a good film, it's a case where I lean towards forgiving those faults. Deliriously surreal, wonderfully provocative, filled with some great imagery and a scenery devouring performance by Jan Triska as the Marquis, Lunacy finds Svankmajer is at his artistic best.