I'm not a big fan of this one. However Svankmajer answers my biggest objection in a speech to camera before the film starts and I'll admit that he's achieved in style what he set out to do.
I'll begin with that pre-movie speech. Svankmajer talks about the film we're about to see, which is fascinating and more directors should do it. What particularly makes this glorious though is that he seems to be a grumpy cynic who hates everything. He explains that he hasn't created art, but then again "art is dead" and movies have become empty, puerile exercises in crowd-pleasing. Instead he's made an infantile horror film that he'd like to dedicate to Edgar Allen Poe and the Marquis de Sade, who are its co-writers.
He ends by saying that his film could be called an ideological debate about how to run an asylum: 1. absolute freedom, or 2. control and punishment. However there is a third option, which is a combination of the first two and worse than either, i.e. the madhouse we live in today.
While we're absorbing that little gem, a real pig's carcass opens up in stop-motion animation.
The film itself is live-action, but with animated inserts of the life and adventures of meat. Svankmajer has lots of meat, probably steak, which he gets to slither around, jump into mincing machines and so on. This is kind of fun, but largely irrelevant to the film.
The live-action (i.e. 95% of the movie) is about a well-meaning, slightly ineffectual guy with mental problems (Pavel Liska) and a disgusting old man who calls himself the Marquis (Jan Triska). The latter is awesome and to my mind the most convincing Marquis de Sade I've seen, despite Oscar-nominated competition from Geoffrey Rush
. He can be the most generous man in the world. I wanted to stand up and cheer when he smashed a plate in a restaurant in anger at the proprietor's attitude towards Liska. You also can't accuse him of half-heartedness in his principles.
However he's also a faintly repulsive sadist with an ugly laugh. He gets angry if accused of goodness. He'll go to awe-inspiring lengths in pursuit of his desires, but they're pointless. (Even so though there's grandeur in his blasphemous church service, which involves chocolate cake, fellatio, hammering nails into the Lord and a massive rant against God taken directly from the real de Sade's writings.) One also suspects that his regime wouldn't have caught on quite so enthusiastically if it weren't for the sexual exploitation.
All this is interesting up to a point and well played by all concerned. It's energetic and vulgar, it's capable of being shocking and it has nudity. This is a perfect fit of director and material, since Svankmajer and de Sade have a similar way of tackling nihilistically extreme material with sincerity.
In addition, Svankmajer is a surrealist, so creates intriguing juxtapositions. I really like his idea of making this a modern-day story, but with an 18th century Marquis in the middle of it. The explanation of this is presumably that the Marquis is simply insane, but you could also interpret it as the real de Sade having time-travelled to the 21st century (and presumably learned to speak Czech). The film allows either interpretation. This is fun, but furthermore it lets Svankmajer pass wordless comment on society simply by having his Marquis watch it through his coach window. These shots contain such banal images, e.g. motorways, that from a visual artist like Svankmajer that's clearly deliberate.
This film is lively and classy. There's lots of good to say about it... but it goes on too long. It didn't need two hours and eventually I was pausing in order to do things that were more interesting. Then there's the straw man of an argument in favour of control and punishment. I'd have admired this film had it had real meat in the clash between the principles of de Sade and his opponents, but unfortunately Svankmajer creates a rival philosophy so obviously medieval and silly that it kills the film. Mind you, it works just fine as the empty exercise in shock value we've been warned that we're watching. It's lurid. Poe would have admired it. However it's intellectually worthless.
As an aside, I never realised that Svankmajer made so few full-length movies. He's been making short films since 1964, but his first long movie was Alice (1988) and these days he seems to have a pattern of one feature film every five years. He also likes doing adaptations, by the way.
Despite my objections, I'm glad I saw this movie and in many ways I'd even defend it as both good and important. The key thing is to listen to Svankmajer. Believe him when he slags off his own movie, even though it's a brave exercise in surrealist excess and effectively a collaboration between three of the most famous boundary-pushers in Western culture. (The plot's inspired by two Edgar Allan Poe stories.) If nothing else, I've now been shown a creepy retarded Tweedledum attendant and that I find perambulating brains funny.