Review by Jason Pirodsky
No beating around the bush: SILENI (English “Lunacy”) is a masterpiece & easily the finest feature Jan Švankmajer has crafted.
Unlike the director´s ALICE or FAUST – which were bizarre in design but generally faithful adaptations of classic tales – Švankmajer here combines the writings of the Marquis de Sade and two Poe stories (“Premature Burial” and “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether”) to produce his own unique plot. The resulting script is the best that Švankmajer has written: even if we´re familiar with the original tales, we´re always kept off guard in the way they are incorporated into the story – the twists and turns are always unexpected and layered with delicious satire, irony, and black comedy. The plot recalls the various stories of de Sade, such as Peter Brook´s MARAT/SADE or Philip Kaufman´s QUILLS, and the tone recalls an endless number of Poe adaptations, but Švankmajer´s script and direction are consistently surprising. Along with his always exceptional imagery, his story takes us somewhere new and fascinating, and has a lot to say along the way.
After a brief introduction during which the director labels the films as ‘a work of horror – with all the degeneracy that the genre implies´, we are taken into a film that few would classify as horror, though none would argue over the degeneracy. Jean Berlot (Pavel Liška) finds himself experiencing nightmares after the death of his mother – nightmares of men coming for him with a straightjacket and taking him away. You see, his mother died in a mental institution (‘at Charenton´, he says, in a nod to de Sade) – and Berlot fears a similar fate. Despite the film (seemingly) being set in present day, the Marquis de Sade (Jan Tříska) shows up, witnesses the physical representation of Berlot´s nightmares, and tells him he thinks he can cure him. I won´t spoil the fun, but after this we are taken to the Marquis´ manor, then to a mental institution where the inmates seem to have taken over the asylum. ‘To cure yourself of your fears, you must experience them´, the Marquis tells Berlot – and thus the story sets into motion, complete with a mad doctor, a beautiful girl, mysterious surgical treatments, a wonderfully ironic scene involving tarred and feathered men taken quite cerebrally from Poe, and yes, all the degeneracy that one could expect from a film that mixes Jan Švankmajer, the Marquis de Sade, and Edgar Allen Poe.
A note about the performances: they´re pitch-perfect, from the best cast that Švankmajer has had to work with, a near who´s-who of contemporary Czech cinema. Especially Jan Tříska, as the Marquis, who reminds me somewhat of crazed Henry Fonda. I can´t imagine another actor who would be able to create such sympathy and madness that Tříska has here with de Sade – and it´s likely the best representation of de Sade put on film (surpassing the performances by Geoffrey Rush and Daniel Auteil in recent films), even if the character isn´t really the Marquis.
Sprinkled throughout the film are brief sequences of what many will be expecting, and what some may be disappointed by: Švankmajer´s unique stop-motion animation, which here is almost solely devoted to scenes of animated meat, or, if you will, Meatmation – a technique seen in some of the director´s previous shorts, perhaps most notably in MEAT LOVE. Švankmajer (perhaps wisely) doesn´t even attempt to integrate the shots of dancing steaks and ground beef, eyes and tongues crawling back into skulls, etc., into the actual plot of the film, and the resulting tonal shift can sometimes be jarring. But by the end we realize that the meat is a perfect match to the film´s theme. A final scene in a grocery store is beautiful and haunting: a once jovial slab of meat, barely alive, is now packaged and shrink-wrapped, each breath pressing against its plastic cage. A poignant metaphor, and wonderful reflection on how society, and psychiatry, can treat human beings.
By all means, Šílení deserves to be the Czech Republic´s official selection to the 2006 Academy Awards (where it would likely be nominated for, if not win, the Oscar for Best Foreign Film), and the winner of the Czech Golden Lion (as was Švankmajer´s previous film, OTESANEK – a film SILENI is far superior to). Unfortunately, I fear this may not happen. The film fared poorly at the Czech box office, opening at number six and likely gone from most cinemas after its third week of release. That the film won´t rake in millions is a given, and no disgrace – SILENI, as most of Švankmajer´s body of work, is not for everyone. But should the film go under seen and unrecognized, or not receive a theatrical release in the U.S. at all, it will be a true shame.
After Švankmajer´s wonderful and provoking shorts, I had been somewhat under whelmed by his previous four features. Not that they were bad in any sense, but because Švankmajer´s live action scenes always seemed to be upstaged by the animation, and at points I found myself just waiting for the stop-motion. SILENI is different – if anything, the live action is better than the animated sequences, and they work together beautifully to produce a story that combines a compelling plot with a provoking theme.
It´s truly the best film I´ve experienced in years. See it, if and when you can.