It’s wrong to understand a film solely through its maker’s words, but since the very substance of Lunacy is error–psychological, physiological, metaphysical, pataphysical–I may as well screw up from the start by quoting Jan Svankmajer’s onscreen introduction. He stands before you in a conspicuously empty space, a white-haired, white-bearded man of mournful countenance, and speaks over a faint clatter. It sounds like sprockets passing through a cogwheel. Did the crew fail to muffle the camera’s noise? Or is somebody, somewhere, running an old 16-millimeter projector?
“What you are about to see,” Svankmajer says, apparently oblivious to the interference, “is a horror film, with all the degeneracy peculiar to that genre. It is not a work of art. Today, art is all but dead anyway.” That being the case, “our film may be regarded as an infantile tribute to the works of Edgar Allan Poe, from which it takes certain themes and images, and to the Marquis de Sade, to whom it owes its blasphemy and subversion.” As if distracted, Svankmajer looks down at his feet. A severed tongue is creeping energetically across the wooden floorboards, bunching itself like an inchworm. Svankmajer, unfazed, goes on. “In essence, our story concerns a philosophical debate over how best to run a lunatic asylum,” or something. Do you think I can write this all down? I know I’ve botched some of it, but the basic idea is this: While one side in the debate argues for complete freedom and the other advocates control and punishment, either way is better than the method of having both at once, as we do in “the madhouse we live in today.”
Having survived two-thirds of twentieth-century Czech history, Svankmajer is entitled to make such judgments. But he’s already gone, and in his place we see the hanging carcass of a pig–a very, very long pig–which splits open at the top with a zipping, slurping, ripping sound. Guts spill out in profusion, and as the camera pans down along the pink flesh the gash continues to open, as if sliced by vision itself, while more and more intestines tumble forward in a squiggly pile.
Our story begins:
No, to tell the story would be an even worse mistake than repeating Svankmajer’s explanation. Better to stick to details. Lunacy takes place simultaneously in today’s Central Europe–where there are cheap bluejeans, broken computers, exhaust-spewing passenger vans and light bulbs with a yellowish cast–and in a late-eighteenth-century France of horse-drawn carriages, powdered wigs, cocked hats and candlelight. The protagonist, a youngish fellow named Jean Berlot (Pavel Liska), travels about with a cloth bag slung over his shoulder and a broken-toothed comb in his pocket–a keepsake from his dead mother–with which he sometimes tugs at his dark and wiry hair. His eyes are slitlike and timid, his overbite pronounced, his cheeks grubbily stubbled, his stance apologetic. It takes just one direct glance from a pretty woman–such as lithe, red-headed Charlota (Anna Geislerová), first glimpsed at a country inn–for a fool like this to fall in love.
For the first half of Lunacy, though, Jean gets only a few more intermittent looks at Charlota. Mostly he’s ensnared by the Marquis (Jan Tríska), a square-jawed old dandy given to tonsils-baring outbursts of laughter and eloquent, vituperative monologues. He can be soothing and generous, too, or at least he can seem so, since a weak character such as Jean needs to be kept and controlled by kindness, sometimes, instead of loud intimidation and the waving of antique pistols. The “blasphemy and subversion” that Svankmajer mentions in his introduction? The Marquis shows Jean plenty of that, once he’s taken the stray home. The pranks include a black mass in which large portions of chocolate cake (or is it some other brown, gooey stuff?) substitute for the wafer, and the kiss of fellowship is replaced by a rite that involves Charlota’s bare buttocks.