“Ladies and gentleman, what you’re about to see is a horror film… it is not a work of art.” I’ll bet that line was much quoted in reviews when this came out, but I don’t feel like doing much research on this one. Because I wasn’t heavily invested in the question of whether it would be art – I find all of Svankmajer’s features to be fun (with some tedious stretches) entertainments with some signature shots (the dead-on close-ups) and stop-motion.
Ah, the stop-motion – if not for that, Svank would be Borowczyk with better subject matter. In this one it’s used to create disturbing little vignettes between live-action scenes, which will sometimes (nearly) overlap. It’s all meat. Meat in motion, set to grating, rickety carnival music.
The story itself isn’t bad. Svank’s got a decent lead actor in Pavel Liska, the Czech Keanu Reeves, and a good back-and-forth plot when Pavel is invited to stay with a Marquis, who alternately seems like a benevolent uncle and a total madman. In the end, as befitting its title and carnival music, everyone in the film is mad, and Pavel seems the sanest. He has wicked night terrors, but at least he’s self-conscious enough to be embarrassed about them and realize where they come from. Everybody else is either exercising their crazy whims openly or biding their time until they can do so. But I’m glad there was more to it than the whole “everyone is mad” premise, which was apparent from the title. It’s also about the treatment of madness – we see all kinds, none of them any good.
Pavel was visiting his mother in an asylum – was he staying there too? Anyway, he takes up with the Marquis, who self-treats his fear of being buried alive by faking death regularly and being buried alive (with the tools to escape). He also holds sacreligious orgies in the basement, and all of this makes Pavel nervous. The Marquis takes him to Dr. Murlloppe, who runs an asylum where the patients are allowed to do whatever they please (feathers fly, a nude woman is a paint-therapy canvas). Pavel doesn’t fit in, vows to save Murlloppe’s “daughter” (Marquis warns that she’s a lying hysteric nympho). He frees the “real” doctors, tarred and feathered and imprisoned in the cellar, and they take charge using their methods of cure-via-torture, holding Pavel as a patient.
For the first time Svankmajer makes real use of his actors as actors, not merely as self-operating meat puppets. In particular, Jan Triska as the Marquis (de Sade) brings a malevolence, a twinkle, and a vulnerable humanity to this film which hasn’t been seen in the Czech alchemist’s movies before. . . unlike the previous features which had used actors largely to occupy screen space where puppets would have been too expensive and time-consuming, Lunacy revels in the possibilities of unpredictable humanity let loose in an artist’s cinematic canvas.