In Czech director Jan Svankmajer's new film, the lunatics are running the asylum literally. Part fantasy, part allegory, part surrealist art experiment, Lunacy is yet another of the legendary filmmaker's cinematic provocations, in which dreams are inseparable from reality, the past bleeds into the present and slabs of red meat crawl off their plates in search of the cow skeletons from which they came. It's a riot of shocking images, philosophical treatises and macabre humor. But, by the time this two-hour film grinds to a halt, you may feel that unlike the grotesque, stop-motion animated interludes peppered throughout the whole of Svankmajer's film is actually less than its sometimes brilliant parts.
Lunacy begins with an introductory prologue in which the 72-year-old filmmaker stands before the camera announcing, tongue firmly in cheek, that "what you're about to see is a horror film." It isn't, of course, even if the scenes of car accidents, satanic rituals and decadence wouldn't seem out of place in, say, Rosemary's Baby. A fantasia that melds the work of Edgar Allan Poe with the Marquis de Sade, the film is told from the point of view of young Jean (Pavel Liska), a curly-haired, mentally unstable young traveler plagued by recurring nightmares of being hauled off to the loony bin in a straitjacket by a pair of thugs.
Shortly after one of these episodes, he meets a man who goes by the name of "the Marquis" (Jan Triska) and offers him transportation in the form of a horse-drawn carriage. What Jean doesn't know is that his deepest fears will soon be realized, as the Marquis subjects him to a series of paganistic orgies (with naked women in monk robes eating chocolate cake), ribald plays (in which the audience participates in a rape) and finally, a stay in a mental institution where the patients (many of them acting like chickens) have taken over.
While this is all fine and dandy, the Marquis also subjects Jean to a series of deathly dull, philosophical lectures on blasphemy versus pleasure, sin versus indulgence and sanity versus insanity. Most of these speeches are delivered directly into the camera; Svankmajer's actors have been instructed to look deep into the lens during takes, and, combined with their already theatrical, exaggerated acting style, it makes for a tedious ordeal.
At its best, Lunacy contains moments that should be playing on an endless loop in a gallery: When Jean is introduced to a man whose tongue has been cut out, there's a quick shot of beef tongues wiggling out of a plaster statue's nipples. But the film's clunky narrative detracts from the bizarre fun. By the end of the film, when a psychiatric doctor explains his unreasonable methods of corporal punishment, in repetitive detail, you'll probably have already checked out.
Showing with Lunacy is a superlative short film by another one of cinema's last true surrealists, Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin. My Dad Is 100 Years Old is a gleefully strange and geeky reminiscence on the life and career of late director Roberto Rossellini, father of actress Isabella Rossellini (who collaborated with Maddin on his last feature, The Saddest Music in the World). Appearing in multiple roles as herself, her father, her mother Ingrid Bergman, Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock and others Rossellini engages in a stylized, black-and-white dialogue on the pros and cons of realism in film. It's all served up by Maddin in the most surreal manner possible: Roberto is represented by his giant belly, which talks to the other characters in a bellowing voice. As strange as it all is, somehow, you get the feeling it would have made papa Roberto proud.
Lunacy is in Czech with English subtitles; My Dad is 100 Years Old screens immediately afterward. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 16, and at 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 17-18.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].