Jan SvankmajerpuppetsFrantisek Filipovsky
Don Juan
Medium: short film
Year: 1970
Writer/director: Jan Svankmajer
Keywords: animation, puppets
Actor: Frantisek Filipovsky
Country: Czechoslovakia
Language: Czech
Format: 30 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065654
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 26 March 2013
It's Svankmajer's version of the story of Don Juan, also called Don Sanche or Don Sajn. It's also by far the longest of his short films, the reason for which is that it has a plot.
So, who's Don Juan? Answer: a womanising bastard. However Svankmajer's doing it as a puppet film again and starting with "based on an old Czech puppet play", so the impression you'll get is that this is one of those grisly old folk tales in which wolves, bears and other such nasties used to commit grotesque horrors in what were supposedly children's stories. Maybe it is? Don Juan is old, after all. The first known version is a Spanish play from 1630, but it's been reinterpreted any number of times by different authors and even that 17th-century 'original' has a 14th-century setting.
This makes the plot a bit different to normal stories. You can see why Svankmajer chose it. One has Hollywood expectations these days of the expected narrative shape and what's going to happen to a movie's protagonists. These expectations don't usually include "getting his face cut off and then coming out of the ground in a cemetery with five burning candles on his head".
We begin with two lovers who want to get married, but can't because the girl's been promised to Don Juan. (Her boyfriend is Don Juan's brother.) We see their plans for happiness, which, um, well.
We then meet Don Juan and his jester, who's a lot like a Shakespearian fool and would have been funny if presented more naturalistically. Svankmajer does him as a squat troll with waggling puppet arms, which only adds to the disturbing quality of the things he says. He's happy to go along with almost anything Don Juan suggests. Going off into the forest to rob and murder? No problem! "Our first victim will be mine!" He's cracking standard Fool-style gags, but he's got no morality and he's arguably more of a monster than Don Juan himself.
The relationship between those two is the most interesting thing in the film. The jester is scum, but he gibs when asked to put himself in supernatural danger and starts cheering on his master's enemies and asking why he stays with Don Juan at all. Nevertheless at one word from his master, he reacts with an almost dog-like obedience. "Sit!" He sits, but it's a Pavlovian response rather than anything heartfelt. He's been the guy's servant for decades, but he has nothing in him but wilful idiocy and heartlessness. At the end, when Don Juan's finally met his comeuppance, the jester's response is merely, "Sir, sir, who will pay me for my twenty years of service?"
You might have noticed the extreme dialogue. Unusually, you'll be wanting the subtitles for this one. Svankmajer's short films are usually all visual, but this one's a stage play done with creepy old-fashioned puppets and explosive lines. Here are some examples:
"Let your master buy two pieces of strong rope, one to hang himself with and the other to hang you with."
"Now I must ask Dona Maria whether she means to love me. If not, then she must die at my sword."
"And when I catch the scumbag, I shall have my wicked way with him."
"I am a young nobleman. I shall go deep into the woods and perform heroic feats there, assaulting and murdering whoever I meet."
Thus we have extreme plotting of a kind that hasn't been fashionable for centuries, realised by Svankmajer in the puppet style to which he's stayed faithful throughout his career. (He studied at the marionette facility of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague in 1954-1958.) It's pretty nuts to keep putting these antiquated puppets on film, but "nuts" is what Svankmajer lives for and I think it's kind of magnificent, personally. Sometimes they're are actual puppets, while at other times they're actors inside man-sized puppets with a string attachment nailed to their heads. Svankmajer also uses a defiantly traditionalist soundtrack, so for instance the film's big sword fight is effectively a musical piece, with that rhythmical "ting ting" and the hurdy-gurdy accompaniment that will make you think of monkeys and organ grinders.
Svankmajer loves the violence, of course. Eyes get impaled, ears get stabbed (and the sword wiggled around in there) and blood pours from neat round holes in the wood.
This could be argued to be a more accessible film than much of Svankmajer's output, having not just a storyline but emotional subtleties. Look at the way Don Juan repeatedly passes his brother without harming a hair on his head, for instance. I've already talked about the unusual relationship between Don Juan and his jester. However at the same time, it's as aggressively and deliberately distancing as you'd expect. The puppets are anti-naturalistic and the film opens with a theatre coming to life and the story being enacted there by puppets performing in a stage play. There are intertitles. I don't know if you could call this film enjoyable, but it's striking.
"What are you doing?"
"I am murdering."
"Not me! Wait until we meet someone."
"What's the difference, you or whoever?"