Connoisseurs of the disgustingly visceral will find Jan Svankmajer hardly mellowed at 72. Lunacy is dark, scary, and yucky—even by the Czech animator’s own standards.
Svankmajer is the last true surrealist and, as such, has little interest in making “art.” (He animates objects; alchemy is more his line.) By way of a prologue, Svankmajer appears on-screen to warn that Lunacy is no aesthetic exercise. Rather, it’s a tract on the treatment of insanity, couched as an “infantile tribute” to Edgar Allen Poe and the Marquis de Sade.
“La Marseillaise” blares and Lunacy‘s luckless protagonist Jean Berlot (Pavel Liska) suffers through a recurring dream in which two demonic attendants burst into his bedchamber to bung him off to bedlam. (Jean is betrayed by his shirt, which slithers off its chair to unlatch the door.) Given his violent response—setting the room on fire—the nightmare proves prophetic.
Another guest at the inn, namely the Marquis de Sade, takes the unstable young man under his protection. This does not inspire confidence (the Marquis is a capricious cynic with an obnoxious braying laugh), and the evening’s entertainment chez Sade—a black mass and prank premature burial—does little to wipe the terror from Jean’s face. It does, however, prompt his voluntary commitment to a madhouse administered according to a tolerant, Sadean regime.
Treatment includes wildly regressive “art therapy” (with the filmmaker among the patients) and, like the historical Sade, Svankmajer’s Marquis casts the mad in theatrical presentations. A tableaux of Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” overstimulates the lunatics to assault their comely nurse Charlota, posed as bare-breasted Liberty, in an inmate revolt parodying the romantic schoolboy insurrection in Jean Vigo’s quasi-surrealist Zéro de Conduite. Absolute freedom is followed by control and punishment: An authoritarian doctor escapes the asylum basement to seize power and Jean is further disillusioned when Charlota turns out just as depraved as the Marquis predicted.
Blatantly anachronistic, Lunacy conflates 18th-century wigs with 21st-century bus tours and is actually two movies: Jean’s misadventures are punctuated by hurdy-gurdy-scored, stop-motion interludes in which slabs of raw meat—mainly wagging tongues—slither into glasses, scuttle through the mud, and crawl back to the maws of the bleached cow skulls that once housed them. Lunacy may be an ideological argument, but this cavorting, copulating chorus of mindless meat puppets provides the full Svankmajer flavor—as well as a comic metaphor for human existence itself.