Friday, November 24, 2006

Lunacy (2006)

I've been disappointed by filmmakers I like before, but I don't think I've ever been as crushed as I am with this, the latest from Czech animator extraordinaire Jan Svankmajer. He's made worse films (Faust), but never one that felt like such a waste of energy and promise. I think the problem is that Svankmajer's films, short and feature, are all built off one central conceit. When it's a good conceit, Jan burrows into it and exploits every feature and angle of said conceit; when it's a bad or shallow conceit, he gets stuck in ruts of repetition while trying to squeeze something useful out of the parched idea. What makes the stillborn Lunacy such a depressing experience is that, for possibly the first time, Svankmajer has fucked up a good idea. Svankmajer takes the decadent philosophy of the Marquis de Sade and infuses it into the paranoid world outlook of Edgar Allan Poe (mainly via a reconfiguring of "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether"); by doing so, he means to extrapolate metaphors about the soul-destroying effects of repressive societies and loss of individuality within systems of rule and other such things. The thing is, though, Jan hasn't actually worked out what he means to do with those metaphors. So he leans hard on old tricks (stop-motion meat as a stand-in for human 'meat,' discombobulating unexpected closeups, cacaphonic sound design) while he furiously pokes and prods the film to see what oozes out. And plenty comes out; trouble is, every promising or interesting thing that emerges (like the deliberate anachronisms that come with surreptitiously setting the story and characters in the modern day) is quickly skipped over and left to congeal while the dizzily distracted director pushes to stuff the scenario ever fuller with madness and noise. It's all just too much, and it collapses shortly after the midpoint where Sade and his bland traveling companion end up at an anarchic asylum; yet, like Svankmajer's meat, it continues to dance and flop about long after it's gone to rot. By the time the inevitable climax drags itself onstage, it can only seem that Svankmajer himself has succumbed to the aimless mania that infects his characters, and when he belatedly stumbles across a point in the film's final shot, he doesn't seem to know what to do with it. Lunacy is a puerile and ugly film (aesthetically as well as intellectually), but that wouldn't matter much if it were also thoughtful and important... if in other words, it were puerile and ugly for a good goddamn reason. It's not, though -- it's just a garish misfire from a veteran who should know better.

Grade: C


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