Dispatches from Suburbia

If I played an instrument, I would have a band called "The Simon Thomsen Sex Tape"; and other musings, rants, and disconnected ramblings.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Art Meets Horror: A Review of "Lunacy"

“I hold it a blasphemy to say that a man ought not to fight against authority: there is no great religion and no great freedom that has not done it, in the beginning.”
-George Eliot

Lunacy begins with an introduction from director Swankmajer in which he describes the movie as a horror, and not "a work of art."

"Art is dead, anyway," he claims.

A horror it certainly is, with it's disturbing imagery and hopeless story, but it also maintains an art house quality, with the inclusion of many scenes of stop-motion animation. In these scenes, we watch cuts of meat come to life: They crawl through the mud, they destroy statues, they fill cages to a bursting point. In no other film will you see two cow tongues hump each other.

I haven't quite figured out the significance of the meat. These scenes are haunting enough to almost inspire a vegetarian diet, but they are also odd enough to inspire laughter. Maybe, in the meat's destruction of paintings and statues, Swankmajer is making a statement (as in his introduction) about the state of art. Or maybe he's a devout vegetarian trying to spread his dietary beliefs.

One theory that I’ve come across, and I like this one, refers to the director’s statement at the beginning not to “be such a hunk of meat,” a piece of flesh with no individuality. But the film also presents very unrestrained behavior, making the meat a representation of desire and unbridled primitive instincts.

Then again, it could mean just about anything, so moving right along:

In the film, Jean Berlot, played by Pavel Liska, is a tormented character with what seems to be a fear of mental institutions. He meets the Marquis (Jan Triska), a man who dresses in clothes from the Marquis de Sade's era (the film boasts that it is inspired by the works of the Marquis de Sade and Edgar Allen Poe). The performances are thoughtful and necessarily haunting: Liska wears his torment on his face and the Triska's portrayal of the maniacal Marquis is enough to make one feel the need to bathe. The Marquis gives Berlot a "lift," not in a car, but in a horse-drawn carriage. Watching them en route alongside motor vehicles, despite such a dark atmosphere, brought a smile to my face. Lunacy is filled with moments like this.

In many ways, despite Swankmajer's claim, this is a work of art and a surrealist masterpiece. The film addresses blasphemy by first presenting horrific, cringe-inducing images whose main purpose, it seems, are to be blasphemous and nothing more--these scenes, though disturbing, belong, however, because blasphemy is among the main themes of the film.

But it’s not the only theme. By the end we are given an equally horrifying depiction of something else, something almost completely opposite from the Marquis's initially uninspired blasphemous actions, that to reveal more would be giving away too much. Let's just say that it includes corporal punishment.

The film's intention is discomfort. This becomes a double-edged sword: On one side, it's quite effective, causing me to squirm in my seat, as is it's probable intention. On the other side--well, it's quite effective. Not the most uplifting film.

The discomfort is created by the most disturbing imagery (including rape and the Marquis’s driving nails into a statue of Christ) as well as squishing, mashing sound effects that makes the stomach turn. Plus, much of the dialog is delivered through close-ups. It seems that the audience is spoken directly to about disillusionment, horrific tales (like one about being buried alive), and other topics we tend to avoid (torture, rape, and corporal punishment).

The film could easily be described as anti-establishment, but it gives nothing as a solution. One establishment is overthrown, only to be replaced by an equally disturbing alternative (that's as clear as I can be without giving away important plot points). We are even given a very absurdist reenactment of the French Revolution, as if the revolution had been presented as something staged, a tableau in which history only recorded the picturesque accounts of the historical event rather than a more rounded presentation. I found this clever--what "revolution" is not depicted in history books in the exact same manner? History is written by the victors. And, once again, we are given a commentary on art in which we are to come to our own conclusions.

The film's main flaw is that, though it is thought-provoking, haunting, and rather amusing, the subject matter becomes so dire that I'm not sure I could sit through it again.

What I truly enjoyed, however, was not just the clever surrealist touches, but also that, for a very experimental, art house piece that could have come off like a shoddy student film, it is structured in a linear fashion with a storyline that is complex yet something we can follow. Even the Marquis, who at first seems to be fairly one-dimensional, is given a frightening back story that inspires his initially inexplicable actions. The story combines with well-executed camera work and set design that forms very effective, macabre imagery, making this a truly worthy horror flick.


At 3:18 PM, Blogger Stewart Sternberg said...

I think the film claims to be a merging of "The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Feather" (a tongue in cheek tale in which the inmates are found to have taken over and are running the asylum) and "The Premature Burial". However, it is more a mishmosh and an absurdist slide into insanity.

I have always loved the Marquis De Sade, the imprisoned pornagrapher and the man who coined the phrase "Sex without pain is like food without taste." Hmmm. He must have eaten at McDonalds.

If you have an opportunity, you might enjoy Geoffrey Rush as the count in the wonderful film: "Quills".

At 4:16 PM, Blogger Bird on a Wire said...

I have, in fact, seen "Quills," and you are right, it's wonderful. Geoffrey Rush's portrayal is phenomenal.

At 5:29 PM, Blogger mist1 said...

Art is dead? He owes me money.

At 1:39 AM, Blogger ShadowFalcon said...

Ummm Good horror movie...has there ever been a good horror movie? horror lives in the land we love and hate at the same time, it will never win and award but we can't help but watch.

At 6:39 PM, Blogger Erik Donald France said...

Sounds like David Lynch visuals squeezed through Pink Flamingos and salted with a little Mel Brooks. Weird, indeed.

At 1:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Somebody should review this lunacy:

What is this video about??


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