Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Lunacy (2005)

Director: Jan Svankmajer

The movie is credited as being written by Edgar Allen Poe, The Marquis de Sade, and Jan Svankmajer. It seems a little bit grandiose to me, because the movie lacks what I feel is a certain sophistocation that Poe and de Sade have. Saying that it was based on the works of Poe and de Sade would have been enough.

That was my only real complaint about the film and now that it's out of the way, I will try to get through the rest of it without dwelling overly much on the cut-scenes of stop-motion animated meat.

Jean Berlot is traveling through 19th century France which is belied by the sudden appearance of modern costuming, an old bus, and cars driving down the interstate alongside an early 1800s carriage. He has just buried his mother, whom we soon find out was living her final days in Charenton, the same prison where the beloved Marquis de Sade spent his final, raucous days. Jean is plagued by fairly recurrent nightmares that asylum orderlies are coming at him with straight jackets, a result of fear that he will end up like his mother.

After destroying his room at the inn during one such nightmare, fortune befalls him in the form of a rather flamboyant Marquis with a certain...lust for life. The Marquis pays for the damages incurred during the night and feeds the young Jean and offers him a ride. Jean reluctantly accepts. After a rather unsettling trip, they arrive at the Marquis' castle where Jean procedes to witness a blasphemous, de Sadean, exhibit by standing on a bucket and peering into a window. Women are debauched, Jesus is defamed, bare backs are painted with red inverted crosses, and a three-layer chocolate cake is sloppily consumed in a manner rivaling a lucious feast at the Salo house (only this is presumably actually chocolate cake), after which the women dressed as nuns climb under the table to pleasure the men as they finish their cake.

Bent on leaving the next morning, Jean confronts the Marquis, at which point the Marquis has a fit, literally, and Jean is dragged into a mysterious ritual, a la Poe's Premature Burial, alongside the Marquis' tongue-less valet. When this ordeal is over, yet begins another level to the journey poor Jean Berlot is fated to take.

In the tradition of Poe's The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether, Jean decides to accompany the Marquis to the insane asylum run by a dear, sweet man who is a friend of the benevolent Marquis (is the sarcasm coming across okay?). Methods of treatment include chickens chickens everywhere, throwing paint at a naked woman strapped to a table, locking nurses in rooms with naked crazy men, and various forms of dismemberment.

This turn of events provokes situations where Jean finds himself at the mercy of a nymphomaniac, a poetry spouting midget dressed like Napoleon, a basement cell full of tarred and feathered angry men, and must then decide who is sane and who is seeing reality as it truly is, while dealing with his own recurring demons.

It seems a very straight-forward tale, full of tidbits from the great de Sade's very own life and times during his stay at Charenton. Love, lies, madness, death, fear, and freedom are some of the themes that Jean must chose between as he navigates the levels of the madhouse.

Most disturbing are the not-so-subtle Freudean ideals and the abuse of meat by meat. In this case I mean one of the most disturbing scenes I've ever seen in a movie where a severed cow tongue brutally rapes another severed cow tongue on a tray of medical instruments. The cut-scenes in this movie are more distracting than the cut-scenes in Svankmajer's Alice, simply because, while the meat seems to sometimes enact what just happened in the film, or what is yet to come, for the most part they are just distracting along with a very annoying soundtrack in those parts of the film. Sometimes the meat breathes and makes overtly sexual noises, which is interesting, to say the least.

What is even more disconcerting is the fact that the same people keep turning up, first as people in modern clothing getting on a bus, then in Revolution clothing at the blasphemous party, and again as patients at the asylum.

The atmosphere reminds me of Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932). I can't put my finger on the reason exactly. I think that it is because I've always felt that asylum movies have a certain dark circus feel to them, and this one most especially. Svankmajer says the movie is a philosophical discussion about the best way to run an asylum, among other things: give the prisoners freedom within the walls of the asylum or give them punishment. One seems equally horrid as the other in this movie. There is also a lot of symbolism in the movie. The chapter titles are very clever, by the way. And the thing I found the most joy in was that one of the chapters on the DVD is titled "120 Days of Blasphemy" and if you don't know where that stems from, shame on you! :D

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