Lunacy (Jan Svankmajer, Czech Republic / Slovakia)

“When the world has gone mad, the insane may turn out to be the most rational of all.” This idea could arguably be one of the laziest intellectual clichés to have survived the 1960s, virtually stripped of its once-radical content.  But to fully understand why Jan Svankmajer’s Lunacy delves yet again into this conundrum, we’ll have to take a brief historical detour. Lunacy represents a new phase in the Czech master’s work, as well as provoking a reconsideration of Surrealism’s continued viability as a force of subversion. 

In Lunacy, Svankmajer draws on specific links between radical aesthetics and a deep skepticism towards the psychiatric establishment. By the end of the Sixties, the anti-psychiatry movement, its critique of power, and its flexible definitions of normalcy (Laing, Szasz, and later Foucault), had devolved into the cheap bumper-sticker sloganeering alluded to above.  But as it happens, one place where the questioning of psychiatric authoritarianism first gained traction, and where the dividing-line between the “normal” and the “pathological” was framed early on as a political issue, was the Surrealist movement of the Twenties. 

If the irrational presents a pipeline to the unconscious, and if that “individual” unconscious is in fact a seething repository of the dominant culture’s dirtiest secrets (tactile carnality, the fragility of the incest taboo, the dissolution of racist categories, and above all the death-drive), then the insane were sociology’s political avant-garde, offering a glimpse of an unrepressed legislation of the libido.  Although the Surrealists’ aesthetic program was ultimately stranded in a dialectical stalemate – the “sane” individual’s process of tapping into his or her irrationality relied on chance, automatism, and strictures on the will, which were just another form of rational control – their political struggle “failed” in a most successful way. Folks like Marcuse and Lacan picked up the ball and ran with it. Theoretically, the Surrealists’ privileging of unchecked id evolved into the “decentered subject,” that slippery postmodern scamp the fundamentalists so love to hate.

That’s the story from the Western front. But things went a little differently in the Soviet bloc, where spontaneous eruptions of political desire (the Prague Spring chief among them) were summarily squashed. If the unconscious was the place where collective, dissident urges had to hide out, all the while getting mixed up with libidinal residue, then in this context Surrealism could maintain a consistent level of cultural power. (See also: the cinema of Dusan Makavejev.) In the American Sixties, by contrast, frank new artistic and political energies temporarily mitigated the need for the fractured codes of the dream-work. We had to wait for the rise of Reagan to see these forces bloom once more domestically (David Lynch, naturally a Reagan supporter). Likewise, in the Bush-43 present, Surrealism bubbles up again, in froms both frighteningly uncompromised (Crispin Glover’s cinematic bowel-spasm What is it?) and degraded, flush with capital (Matthew Barney’s gelatinous gewgaw, Drawing Restraint 9).

Lunacy begins with a direct address by Svankmajer himself. Calm, almost professorial in his mien, the director announces that what follows is a horror film, and not a work of art. “Art is all but dead anyway,” he mutters. He then makes a statement that upon first viewing seems potentially ironic, but is in fact as blunt as much of the rest of the film. “This is a film about an ideological debate, about two competing methods of running a lunatic asylum.” Although the first thirty minutes of Lunacy are taken up with some odd preliminary business, the majority of the film is a dramatization of the libertine philosophies of the Marquis de Sade, as filtered through two stories by Edgar Allen Poe. To call Lunacy all talk and no action would be factually incorrect, since Svankmajer does stage several psychological nightmares, brief passages of a rather tame Sadean sex ritual, as well as allowing the stray asylum inmate to cut loose here and there. But mostly it’s as though Svankmajer, one of Surrealism’s great, unreconstructed spiritual heirs, has given up on applying pure pressure to the viewer’s psyche, and just wants to drop some anti-establishment science. (No wonder, then, that the credit sequence reduces the primal horror of dismemberment to crude, tarot-like flashcards.)

Although Lunacy isn't an altogether successful film, it's certainly a fascinating one. In fact, over the course of its two-hour running time, I went from actively disliking it to actually finding much in it to admire. Svankmajer produces an actively ugly, vaguely decadent turn-of-some-century mise-en-scène and fills it with the verbal claustrophobia of the Marquis’ grand pronouncements. These only partially relent upon arrival at the asylum, which presents its own series of art-directed eyesores. Roland Barthes’ analysis / diagnosis of Sade’s own work applies equally well here. “For [Sade] the reconstitution of a whole can be no more than a summation of intelligibles: nothing indecipherable, no irreducible quality of ejaculation, happiness, communication.”  In other words, surface is all. What struck me at first as directorial fastidiousness bordering on the taxidermic --  Sade’s major themes being rather needlessly shoehorned into the narrative container of Poe’s "The Premature Burial" and "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” – seems on further reflection to be a bit of commentary on Surrealism’s present-day exhaustion.  It’s just a discourse now, another way of talking about the unnamable (or for that matter, of categorizing and containing unruly dispatches from a Czech animator’s viscous id).

As played to the hilt by the wild-eyed character actor Jan Triska, the Marquis presents his ideas (among the most astringent in the Western tradition) as a series of cackling, long-winded soliloquies. We get all the blasphemy and excursuses on libertinism, but none of the raw perversity. Meanwhile, the mise-en-abyme nightmare of our bland protagonist Jean (Pavel Liska, a hangdog Everyman who manages to look both shocked and depressed throughout the film) drives the plot to and fro, shuttling us between competing nightmares of psychiatric confinement. As he states in his introduction, Svankmajer locates our present-day social predicament at the juncture of freedom and servitude, our world tending to retain the worst elements of each. In the end, Lunacy refrains from suggesting that Sade was a true liberator. However the film does imply that the social order Sade opposed represents a cruelty far more pernicious because its libidinal investments have been sublimated into bureaucratic techno-discipline. But despite its over-literal staging of this problem, Lunacy leaves it at the level of a flat assertion.

As though making some sort of formal statement about the anarchist imagination confined, Svankmajer relegates his patented stop-motion grotesqueries to transitional snippets. Scenes are punctuated with jarring cut-aways to raw meat in various states of agitation, sometimes twirling in modern dance, other times hurling itself into the grinder, tongues, eyeballs and all. These passages are regrettably marginal, but that would seem to the point. Art, for whatever reason, is a luxury Svankmajer no longer seems to believe he enjoys. Nevertheless, Lunacy’s aesthetic constrictions may have consequences beyond the discomfort they immediately provoke. Svankmajer has made an "idea" film, one that asks what to do when carnal voluptuousness is reduced to something you just stand around talking about.