Meat Breathing Through Plastic Wrap

I wasn’t properly prepared for the fourth film in our Slavic and East European series with the Ryder and REEI. (I wrote about the first three, Murina, EO, and The Other Side of Everything here, here, and here.) There’s a good reason for this, which I’ll get to shortly.

The slices of meat squirming across the screen in the opening scene of the 2005 Czech film Lunacy (dir. Jan Švankmajer) set to what sounded to me like a Bavarian beer festival tune were a good indicator that this film was in a different genre from its predecessors! After the meat came tongues and eyeballs, sometimes squirming, sometimes filling in around other objects and/or interacting with each other energetically and suggestively.

These interstitial segments with their impressive stop-motion animation appear to provide commentary and perhaps chorus-like reinforcement to the unfolding action. They also collectively illustrate one of the film’s main themes, that of flesh unbound, a freeing of the body (or in this case, body parts) to do what it (or they) will. Liberation, however, is preceded by confinement, a notion announced in the waking nightmare of Jean Berlot that begins the film (or so I thought), in which two white-clad attendants smiling devilishly attempt to put a straight jacket on him.

The “confine and punish” theme is rationalized a bit later in the film by Dr. Coulmiere, who explains to Jean his theory of maintaining the balance of body and mind after Jean has voluntarily committed himself to the sanitarium that becomes the main setting for the latter two-thirds of the film. The fact that Jean is the one who sets the good doctor free from the sanitarium’s basement, where he has been confined after an uprising by the patients, provides both irony and a classic feature of the horror film plot — for this is a horror story, after all!

As my colleague Craig Cravens pointed out to me afterward, Švankmajer makes it clear what kind of film he created in the brief preface to the film itself. For whatever reason, however, the preface wasn’t in the print we saw. I am not exactly sure how this might have affected my viewing experience, probably not a lot after the initial few scenes, which felt a lot like they were inspired by an Edgar Allen Poe story, as indeed they were.

Be that as it may, the meat remained interesting throughout. Somewhere into the second hour, it became clear that the tongues and eyes were graphic demonstrations of Dr. Coulmiere’s various methods for controlling the body. Cutting out patients’ tongues was his therapy No. 8. Removing their eyeballs was his therapy No. 10. Controlling the flesh in order to put it back into “balance” with the mind, according to Coulmiere, required weakening the body, doing violence to it.

We are told there are thirteen such therapies, beginning with twenty lashes and ending with whatever the “marquis” has been subjected to towards the film’s end. We’re not told explicitly what it is, only shown the groaning heap of his body on a cot in a basement cell, his blinded companion (therapy No. 10) laughing at having been shown mercy amid the clucking of a brood of chickens.

The flesh running free in the filmic interstices is like the patients running free in the sanitarium during Coulmiere’s absence, they and the chickens running wild through the halls, sliding down the stairwells, and throwing paint at a woman confined against a wall. It is like the “marquis’s” wild consumption, blasphemy, and orgies. And it is like Jean himself running free at the beginning of the film. Jean’s flesh (so to speak) grows as he acts upon his libido-inspired desire to save the beautiful nurse Charlotte. The interstitial meat becomes bigger and more aggressive, overflowing its bounds. He is of course deluded and filled with anxiety and fear, all of which makes it seem as though the film has been enacting Coulmiere’s ideas from the start.

This is not what Švankmajer claims in his preface, however, where he notes instead that there are two ways to run an insane asylum, one that emphasizes freedom, the other that insists on control and punishment. A third system, he claims, exacerbates the worst aspects of the other two, and this is the world we live in. The closing shot of rows of packaged meat in a grocery store connects this notion to the commerce and consumption of contemporary life.

If the suggestion that we are all like individual pieces of packaged flesh trying to breathe through the plastic wrap appeals to you, you’ll probably like this movie.


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