Monday, November 21, 2005

Premiere of the New Švankmajer Film

I arrived in Brno Friday evening on a non-express bus that was, nevertheless, on time despite its feeling for about half the trip as though we were jolting along on a flat tire. (Some of you will recall that I got a flat tire in Wisconsin this summer and initially attributed the sensation to increasingly poor highway, which did indeed seem to begin the minute I crossed the border from Illinois. I am now very alert to abnormal bumpiness on the highway, although in California these days all roads feel in need of repaving.)
Bus issues aside, I arrived in time to have a quick dinner with Jesse and get to the local multiplex for the new Švankmajer film, Šílení (Lunatics). According to the theater, it was the premiere, but you would not have guessed this otherwise, as the theater was relatively empty and there were no festivities. Presumably the official premiere was occurring in Prague. (It occurred to me to wonder what that could have been like, considering that Eva Švankmajerová had just died and it is likely that Jan Švankmajer was not feeling especially celebratory.) And who knows, perhaps the inhabitants of Brno just don’t care for Švankmajer films. I don’t suppose that most people in any city do.
We, however, like to see weird films that most people don’t like. We don’t always like them either, but they do have to be seen. Well, some of them, anyway.
The Švankmajers are/were part of the postwar Czechoslovak surrealist group, indeed probably the members best-known abroad. When I tell people that I am working on Czech surrealism, their assumption (if they have ever heard of it in the first place) is that I must be studying the Švankmajers. Since I don’t actually know all that much about the postwar Czechoslovak surrealists (as opposed to the original interwar gang), the least I can do is try to familiarize myself with the Švankmajers’ large and significant oeuvre so that (at worst) I don’t look like a complete dummy and (at best) I can have a better understanding of the overall surrealist movement here. This means that I went to the major Švankmajer retrospective last summer (and probably spent much too long examining the grotesque assemblages made out of various bones and taxidermy animal parts) and that I welcome the chance to watch the couple’s (or just Jan Švankmajer’s) films. While the films are often a bit repulsive, they are also brilliant in their own inimitable way. I will not soon forget the experience of watching Otesanek during my August Czech course last summer. One of my classmates and I were repeatedly laughing uncontrollably at various lines or scenes (Otesanek is a relatively mainstream sort of Švankmajer film and can be shown to a general audience of people over ten), and one or two other people in the audience indicated that they had also liked it, but my impression was that most of the other students thought it was sick (the maternal instinct does not come off looking too good) and not to be mentioned in the same breath as that lovely, heartwarming film Želary that we had seen a week or two earlier. (Well, Želary is a pleasant enough romance, but the world is full of those, whereas Otesanek is in a class of its own.)
Thus, Jesse and I were not too sure what to expect since we had only seen brief previews for Šílení, but we both like Otesanek and find the short films pretty interesting, so it did seem we really ought to see this.
Šílení opens with a warning that there are only two ways of looking at the world, unless you take a third path that partakes of the extremes of both of the others and approach life as a lunatic.
In a nutshell, Šílení is the story of an unfortunate youth named Jean who has recurrent nightmares of porcine grinning asylum attendants coming for him with a strait-jacket. His mother, it transpires, has been a patient at Charentin. Jean lives to some extent in the twentieth century, but after one of his attacks makes the acquaintance of the Marquis de Sade, who takes a fancy to him. The Marquis insists on taking Jean out to his chateau (evidently not the Chateau de Silling but perhaps a reconstruction of Chateau La Coste), where Jean has some rather unsettling experiences. After the Marquis rises from the dead (or a cataleptic state) and tears the lid off his coffin, he takes Jean for a visit to the local insane asylum, the setting for the remainder of the film. Jean, who is goodhearted if not remarkably bright, ends up making what turn out to be (but might so easily not have been) some errors of judgment. (It should be noted that women are not necessarily trustworthy in this film.)
This little summary is, of course, leaving out the role of the animated pieces of raw meat that punctuate the various scenes to the sound of a fairground calliope. You can’t really have a Švankmajer film that lacks horrible foodstuffs or perverted relationships with food and/or body parts. But perhaps I will refrain from describing the antics of the raw meat, as most of my readers will already have been sufficiently disgusted and the rest will go and see the film for themselves.
This film is decidedly not for everyone. We noticed that a significant portion of the audience found early on that it was really too much for them, although anyone who has seen more than two or three other Švankmajer films ought to have no illusions that it might be cute or innocuous. Even people who liked Otesanek might find that Šílení is just too savage.
On the other hand, while it is not a film that most people would find enjoyable in the usual sense (it is hard to imagine not being uncomfortable at least now and then while watching it), it’s really very good in its horrible, uncompromising way. As might be expected from surrealist filmmakers, it is not about sadism (certainly not extolling it), but about human fears and anxieties in an unpredictable and often cruel world. The Marquis is an unpleasant and frightening character, but perhaps not the worst of the lot. The film does follow standard surrealist thought in theorizing him as an important and neglected Enlightenment philosopher. Not, perhaps, a very sane one, and certainly not one you really want to visit, but one who shouldn’t be ignored.
It’s a little weird listening to big chunks of Czech translations of the Marquis de Sade’s writing (and apparently also pieces from Huysmann, presumably used in the satanic scene) spewing relentlessly from the actor’s mouth, but then the character’s two main modes are harsh philosophical ranting and maniacal laughter. And, in a strange way, it works. The character is repulsive, but fascinating.
It’s also a bit unsettling to see the same actors in the main roles that one sees in lots of other Czech films—minus Boleslav Polivka, who probably has too lovable a persona to insert here—but that’s typical of the Czech film industry. I am terrible at keeping track of actors and their names, but even I can recognize that I’ve seen these people before, some in quite a selection of roles. In a way, it adds to the nightmarish quality to know that you’ve seen some of these people playing Nazis or troubled youth elsewhere.
Anyhow, it’s quite an interesting film.
Some links about the film (text in Czech):
Czech TV

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