Few directors deserve the adjectives "visionary," "disturbing," and "surreal" more than Jan Svankmajer, the 72-year-old Czech puppetmaster and conductor of nightmarish stop-motion hallucinations. Banned from making films in his native country for several years, Svankmajer plumbs the dark side of the contemporary psyche with subversive and uncanny interpretations of texts like Faust, Jabberwocky, and Alice in Wonderland. Using old-fashioned stop-motion and perverse puppetry, Svankmajer is a true master of demonstrating that a few well-crafted tricks and a dark vision can be infinitely more terrifying than any computer-generated imagery.
Lunacy, then, would seem to be quintessential Svankmajer territory. Inspired by the writings of Edgar Allen Poe and the Marquis de Sade, Lunacy tells the story of Jean Berlot, a young man descending into madness who is taken under the wing of a sadistic, equally insane Marquis. Under the Marquis' hospitality, Berlot witnesses an orgiastic anti-Christ ceremony and unwillingly participates in the Marquis' fantasy of being entombed alive. As Berlot slips in and out of sanity, he has grotesque hallucinations of animal tongues slithering across the floor like tapeworms, canned brains throwing themselves into meat grinders, and human eyeballs rolling across muddy landscapes. The story winds up in an insane asylum where the inmates have taken over and the faculty are kept, tarred and feathered, in a dungeon downstairs.
So it's a shame to report that Lunacy is not among Svankmajer's best work. The fantastic stop-motion sequences are too few and far between, and the live action narrative isn't strong enough to sustain the two-hour running time. For those who aren't familiar with Svankmajer's body of work, I can't recommend Alice or Faust strongly enough. For those who know and love the filmmaker's creepy fantasies, you'll find plenty of familiar themes and tropes here—but none of the brilliant, relentless wizardry that marks his earlier films.