Moviegoers who regard David Lynch as the grand master of contemporary surrealism might be pleased to make the acquaintance of the Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer, one of cinema’s greatest fantasists. Svankmajer’s newest over-the-brink creation is Conspirators of Pleasure, the absorbing story of an obsessive handful of hardcore sexual fetishists whose lives intersect and dance around one other in serendipitous fashion.
Please don’t get me wrong. Conspirators of Pleasure is an erotic film, although not in the ways that we usually think of eroticism on film. That is, while sexuality is the film’s subject, the titillation factor here is low. For the most part, the characters remain fully clothed throughout. Importantly, there is no sexual intercourse, per se. Nobody talks dirty, because there’s no dialogue at all. Like pornography, communication here is almost completely nonverbal. What’s most gratifying to these motley sensualists — even the married couple, who pursue their own desires separately — is self-gratification. The film itself begins methodically, cross-cutting from story to story and growing ever more complicated as each minute passes. Finally, it achieves its own sort of orgasm, as the stories cross and interconnect, reaching a delirious climax and then a comedown — a disturbing resolution in the best surrealist tradition.
Svankmajer is best known as an animator, and has some 26 short films and three features to his credit. I’ve found Svankmajer’s short films to be consistently brilliant, at least the ones I’ve seen. His feature debut was the flagrantly bizarre Alice. A version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, it remains a fine introduction to his work, and is one of the few Svankmajer films on video. The white rabbit is a real (dead) rabbit, a fussbudget stuffed with sawdust and animated in stop-motion. Alice is chased through a grotesque dreamworld by freakish stop-action puppets of Svankmajer’s creation — birds with skull heads, a bullfrog with a cow’s tongue, skeletal fish with legs. (This sort of postmortem craftsmanship — the cinematic reanimation of once-living creatures — is a hallmark of a particular branch of avant garde filmmaking.) Only during the final reel, as Alice is tried by a cut-out King and Queen of Hearts, does the pace of Svankmajer’s invention flag.
So I was a little concerned about how well Conspirators would hold up over the course of its 87 minutes. I needn’t have worried. The big revelation is how confident and masterful a director of live action Svankmajer really is. From its opening scene, when a fellow named Peony (Peter Meissel) trades self-implicating glances with a newsstand owner named Kula (Jiri Labus) before purchasing an issue of Hustler, Conspirators of Pleasure is entirely engrossing. The narrative diverges then and there — as soon as Peony leaves the shop, the equally self-conscious Kula is seen to be messing about behind the counter with electronics. Wonder why? All in due time.
We will soon meet Peony’s mail carrier (Barbora Hrzanova), who bides her time tearing off chunks from a loaf of bread and rolling them into little balls. We’ll meet Peony’s neighbor from across the hall (Gabriela Wilhelmova), a rotund woman who will turn out to be the object of Peony’s obsessions. (Eventually, we’ll learn that she has her own skeleton, so to speak, in the closet.) We’re also introduced to Mrs. Beltinska (Anna Wetlinska), who anchors the nightly news — to Kula’s delight. Her husband (Pavel Novy), with whom she barely seems to have contact, is meanwhile constructing his own strange devices, driving nails into rolling pins and furtively snipping bits off of furs worn by strangers.
Have I forgotten anyone? I don’t think so. All of these characters will make their way about Prague, occasionally bumping into one another, all the while absorbed in the elaborate convolutions of their strange fantasies. And what a culmination — for what must be the film’s latter third, Svankmajer dashes headlong into the task he’s set for himself. With no small measures of craft and imagination, the film is transformed into a wild, metaphorical and literal depiction of sexual agitation and release. It’s here that Svankmajer’s formidable talents as an animator are finally showcased, to powerful effect.
Would you believe that this film’s erotic climax has to do with a giant papier-mache chicken head and a bucketful of carp? Well, it does. Would you further believe that Svankmajer damn near accomplishes the awesome task of making carp sexy?
So what, you may wonder, does all this finally mean? Well, in the best surrealist tradition, that’s sort of open to debate. Ideally, you have to see the movie and figure it out for yourself. I’d venture that it’s a sly commentary on the sublimation of desire, on the monotony of everyday life and the flaring of eroticism (in the strangest places). It’s a story about sexual deviance in eastern Europe, and by extension it’s an allegory about life and individuality under trying circumstances. It also seems to be a bit of a cautionary tale, suggesting dire consequences when desire is bottled up and pleasure driven underground. But you don’t have to look at it that way, and you may not. No matter — if you’ve a taste for the bizarre, you’ll find Svankmajer’s unbridled imagination to be its own reward, and Conspirators of Pleasure is almost certainly unlike anything else you’ll see this year.