On the surface, Jan Svankmajer’s Lunacy is indebted to Edgar Allen Poe, but Sadean blood courses through its veins. Surrealists as early as Jean Epstein and Luis Buñuel, who worked together on 1928’s The Fall of the House of Usher, have looked to Poe’s lunatic prose and summoned the Marquis de Sade’s rebel spirit for inspiration, like hungry flies drawn to exposed meat. So it may not come as a surprise that the actors from Svankmajer’s film share equal screen time with cuts of beef and pork that crawl in stop-motion splendor—up, down, around, through, and in and out of the film’s gothic-ornate tableaus—on an insatiably allegorical journey to attest the Czech filmmaker’s message about the primacy of the body and its senses, a mind trip that zips and splats from freedom to fascism.
Lunacy, loosely based on Poe’s short stories The Premature Burial and The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, concerns a young man, Jean (Pavel Liska), who stumbles across a possible conspiracy at an insane asylum through his relationship to a perpetually laughing Marquis (Jan Triska) who dresses in 18th-century garb, rides a horse-drawn carriage, and keeps a servant with no tongue. The film seems designed to jolt the seen-it-all-type and could be considered Svankmajer’s The Phantom of Liberty, a milky way of episodic narrative and razor-sharp humor, though the encroaching madness of its main character and the way it doubles back on itself brings to mind a stream of unconsciousness from a greater work by another modern-day surrealist: Mulholland Drive.
Lunacy is Svankmajer’s most political work—or, rather, the one that most explicitly announces its political ambitions. By film’s end, amid a gonzo flurry of chicken feathers, sadomasochistic violence, and infectious laughter, a blue-balled Jean is caught between a rock and a hard place, a nut and a bigger nut—a standstill reflective of our current state of affairs. This is a constantly buzzing tinker-toy of sensualist shocks and homegrown invention, but Svankmajer makes the mistake of deconstructing the film for us during an introductory on-screen address and, then, saddling characters with explanatory rhetoric about the degradation of authority and the body’s drive for dominance. The film’s great irony is that its hulking animal tongues conspire for our pleasure while Svankmajer’s own loose lingua acts as a buzzkill.