Jan Svankmajer
Conspirators of Pleasure
Medium: film
Year: 1996
Writer/director: Jan Svankmajer
Actor: Petr Meissel, Gabriela Wilhelmova, Barbora Hrzanova, Anna Wetlinska, Jiri Labus, Pavel Novy
Keywords: animation
Country: Czech Republic, Switzerland, UK
Language: Czech
Format: 85 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0117715/
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 24 January 2014
Bizarre, even for Jan Svankmajer. You wouldn't be surprised to get something like this in his short films, but his full-length feature films normally have a narrative.
For once, you see, this isn't an adaptation. His feature films have included adaptations of Lewis Carroll, Faust, Edgar Allan Poe, the Marquis de Sade, Czech folk tales and a Kafka-like Czech stage play. This time, though, it's an original screenplay by himself. (His only other non-adapted feature film to date is Surviving Life in 2010.)
The result, perhaps unsurprisingly, feels more like one of his surreal short films. There's no dialogue. It's not a silent film, mind you, although it could easily have been turned into one. It's just that these people never talk to each other. If necessary, they gesture. There's also no conventional plot, since the characters almost never interact and certainly don't try to hinder each other's actions in any way. There are no protagonists or antagonists. We're simply watching people go about their odd solo fetishes.
We begin with sexually explicit woodcuts and other historical pornography. "Aha," we think, noting the film's title. "This is going to be kinky." We then watch the purchase of a pornographic magazine by someone who seems at once hesitant and oddly uninterested in it. Back home, he has a closet. He seems interested in this closet. He also has pictures on his wall of James Dean and some handsome hunk I didn't recognise, at which he's going to stare before abandoning his girlie mag and diving into that closet. He flicks through his purchase, of course, but in a desultory way. Even when he splashes his juices over the centrefold, it's not what you think it is.
1. Spot the subtext!
2. Ahahahaha, so wrong. You think Svankmajer's interested in something as vanilla and everyday as mildly repressed homosexuality?
For a long time, we don't have a clue what's going on. People collect strange items. The porn shop proprietor, for instance, is soldering circuit boards under his desk. Why? A postwoman chews bread into pea-sized balls, which she'll insert into her head before going to sleep. There's an unlucky cockerel. There are live fish. There's a man with a lugubrious moustache who's doing something with nails, rolling pins and stolen fur. His wife watches him going into the garden shed and cries.
Oddest of all might be what our porn mag hero is up to, but he's not the hero. He's just the one we met first. None of these people are glamorous. They're all middle-aged or older, with ordinary or plain looks. They're the kind of people you wouldn't look at twice in a movie. You certainly wouldn't start wondering what they did in the bedroom; in some cases, it would be a wrench to make yourself imagine them as having sex lives at all.
Jan Svankmajer's got something to say about that.
There's misdirection. I've already mentioned the "into the closet" scene, but later there's a candle-buying scene where I was assuming they were being evaluated on their dildo potential. Again: fail. I was thinking too small. I'd also been wondering if pan lids were going to become a home-made bra.
The symbolism is interesting. One could probably discuss the chicken head for hours, such as for instance the cutting-out of the nipple. One thrust of the film is how people don't talk to each other, giving rise to the Story of the Two Neighbours and the non-relationship of Mr Moustache with his wife. (She's a TV announcer, by the way.) There's also blurring of the line between reality and fantasy, as shown both with stop-motion animation and with more whimsical touches. When the porn shop proprietor hits his face against a TV picture of a river, for instance, he spits out water. "Fantasy" here is a more loaded term than usual in movie discussions, incidentally, given the sexual context.
It's slightly gross, as you'd expect of Jan Svankmajer. It'll nonpluss you, but the conclusion pulls together some symbolic meaning and turns all this faintly disturbing whimsy into a harsher, more definite statement. (I'm trying to avoid spoilers.) Did it need to be feature-length? No. It doesn't feel so very different from a Svankmajer short, except that it's 85 minutes long and hence lacks the density of much of his work. Meanwhile the lack of dialogue and characterisation deprives us of the misanthropy you'll find in, say, Svankmajer's Faust or Lunacy. Svankmajer seems uncharacteristically fond of these secretive self-outcasts, I think, yet paradoxically we never get truly close to them. They don't talk. They don't have conversations. We merely follow them, uncovering their depraved fetishes and other broken longings. That's no substitute for a relationship, which I think is the point.
I liked it, though. You'd never choose it as someone's first Svankmajer, but it's saying a lot with its deadpan, wordless surrealism. It just takes a bit of patience and digging to get there.