Friday, March 30, 2007

Jan Svankmajer’s Lunacy (2005)


“If I offer you hospitality, I have my reasons.”

The film opens on Jan Svankmajer himself, standing in front of a white background, plainly dressed, and addressing his audience concerning what they are about to witness in his latest release – Lunacy (2005). In his address he sets forth 3 models of control: absolute freedom, control and punishment, and the type which combines the worst aspects of the first two. He further describes this third type as “the madhouse we live in today.”

In order to depict the extremes of these three models, Svankmajer’s characters must be complex, tyrannical, gothic and insane. However, as the film progresses, the issue of sanity is played with a great deal. Before witnessing either the effects of adopting the philosophy of absolute freedom or that of control and punishment, we may not understand what the Marquis is attempting to do by bringing Berlot into his bizarre, sadistic, sexual world. We see him as a dark character, appearing to be just as mentally ill in his sadistic treatment of patients as the patients themselves are. We may question: “What is he getting at with all his talk of liberty that in reality does nothing but further oppress the patients he is supposed to be liberating?” It is important here to point out that absolute liberty cannot be liberty for all, since the ability to act however one feels and has the means to act toward others necessarily hinders the liberties of those who do not possess equal power. The Marquis offers Berlot his hospitality and gives the patients complete, unstructured “freedom” (though if they really were free, they would not remain in the hospital, obeying his every command) so that they will feel indebted to him – ready to obey his commands in exchange.

It can be argued that the Marquis and the original psychiatric doctor he overthrew are one in the same as far as where their logic about treating the mentally ill is concerned. The Marquis inflicts psychological pain by brainwashing his patients into adopting his views on the state of the world, which he uses time and again to justify the ways he exploits others. A good example of this in the film is the scene when Berlot tells the Marquis that he saw what he did last night – which he had considered to be sexually abusive/exploitative and blasphemous. The Marquis answers him by offering his logic on the non-existence of God and the idea that nature is evil and destructive and as a result, to be evil and destructive is more closely tied to nature than believing in a “mythical God to grant wishes.” However, I will argue that this use of the logic of destruction is no madder than the conventional doctor’s methods of inflicting bodily pain to weaken the body to return to a balance between the body and the mind. This flip- side to absolute freedom supports strict control over the flesh, using physical pain to condition patients to behave a particular way. Both approaches are, at the heart of the matter, concerned with molding others according to one set logic and idea of the way the world should be – that of whoever is currently in charge.

We can imagine, then, by thinking about the most horrific actions of both the Marquis and the original doctor, what a combination of both approaches would lead to – the absolute freedom of a select few to execute whatever control and punishment techniques, mental and physical, necessary to maintain “order”, perhaps? A survival of the fittest devoid of all aspects of what we consider “morality”? Complete chaos.

So, after considering all three options, which should we choose to avoid living in a societal “madhouse” and is it even possible to avoid any of the three, that is, to actually choose which approach to endorse? Is attempting to negotiate with such theories simply a game of choosing the lesser evil? These questions may never be answered. Indeed, they are not answered throughout the film. While Berlot was initially convinced that the Marquis was a madman and that the only way to restore order was to re-instate the original director, in the final scenes of the film he is horrified to witness the gruesome physical treatments the doctor performs. There is also a final irony – the doctor that Berlot literally set free and reinstated is precisely the man who now holds the power to limit his freedom to leave the institution, which he had initially entered of his own free will.

But it is not only the way we see Svankmajer’s actors showing us bizarre rituals and after-effects of bodily punishment that forces us to confront deeper philosophical issues about the treatment of the mentally ill and the power divisions of society, there is another important component of this film which I have left out of my discussion completely – all that meat.

Upon a first viewing, it comes as quite a surprise – there are tongues jerking across the floor, pieces of butchered meat performing on stage, ground meat hatching from eggs and a final view of a perfectly clean piece of meat being suffocated by its cellophane wrapping in the supermarket. The first time I viewed this film, I did not know what to make of all the meat. While many of the actions performed by the animated meat seemed to directly comment on the scene either directly before or after the particular interlude, some were more abstract and difficult to identify. And then there is the question of why meat was used at all – particularly the different types of meat shown. Perhaps the meat metaphorically represents flesh and the desires of the flesh to be free, to directly express itself and also, paradoxically, to be controlled (manipulated as stringed marionettes), but only so far as to maintain some illusion at least of autonomy. After all, the final, most horrifying depiction of the meat is that of it neatly wrapped, pulsating as if longing to break free. Perhaps the meat represents an ever present conflict between unbounded desires of the flesh and the need for control over the flesh so as not to bring it to complete destruction. There are, of course, other observations to be made and conclusions to be drawn about the film as a whole and what Svankmajer was attempting to make us realize, though from his interview, it seems he would be more fascinated by the possible differing conclusions to be drawn than attempting to explain the specifics of his vision and motivation for making this film.

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