It's a joy that two of Svankmajer's past feature films - this and 'Conspirators of Pleasure' - have finally got official UK releases. 'Lunacy' was, to my knowledge, only previously available in region 1, yet here it is at long last.
The film can be divided into two halves. The first half takes place in the shabby grandeur of a marquis' house (who presumably, going by Svankmajer's acknowledged inspirations for the film, is modelled after the Marquis De Sade). Jean, a young man on the way to his mother's funeral, is invited on his journey to spend the night in the Marquis' home - there he witnesses a blasphemous orgy (with plenty of chocolate cake) and an equally mysterious burial. The second half unfolds in a chicken-filled mental asylum where Jean goes to stay voluntarily, hoping to cure his frightening nightmares of being forcibly straitjacketed. Ideas of the conflict between order and reason and liberty and imagination (the latter clearly favoured) are here played out with the asylum as a backdrop - the patients are given free reign of the place, sledding down the stairways in showers of feathers and staging a tableau vivant of Delacroix's 'Liberty Leading the People'. The film is also curiously anachronistic: the extras in the opening scenes are dressed in modern clothing, and pile onto a bus, yet the Marquis is decked out as an eighteenth-century libertine and the main sets are weathered and Baroque; a computer keyboard is placed amid the clutter of an old-fashioned doctor's office.
Svankmajer's trademark stop-motion animation is much more absent in 'Lunacy', when compared to its prominence in his other features such as 'Alice' and 'Little Otik'. Every now and then, at random intervals, short vignettes pop up of chunks of meat cavorting and frolicking to repetitive, carnivalesque music, possibly acting as mirrors of their live-action counterparts. This, of course, only adds to the film's overall oddness, and it is by no means rooted entirely in reality. Hallucinations are mingled with the everyday, and madness is superimposed with presumed sanity. The humour is always morbid, the imagery Gothic and wild, and characters sway ambiguously between being reliable and untrustworthy. Yet this, as always, is part of Svankmajer's charm.
The DVD itself is perfect, in my opinion. I'm no expert on such matters, but I thought the picture and sound quality was flawless, and there's even a short behind-the-scenes documentary showing various aspects of the production. It's fascinating to see Svankmajer at work on-set, interacting with the actors.
Overall, a much-welcomed release. I would urge any fan of Svankmajer's work to get it before it goes out of print, as this generally seems to be the fate of his feature film releases!