Beyond the Multiplex

Svankmajer's "Lunacy" is one of the year's best films. Plus: A powerfully erotic movie starring Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter.

Published August 10, 2006 11:45AM (EDT)

Last week I made some offhand comment in this space about how August was the home for all movies that were just too weird for the 11 other, more normal months of the year. Honestly, I had no idea. On a stack of satanic Bibles, I swear I had not yet seen Jan Svankmajer's bitter and grotesque political allegory "Lunacy," or the equally demented horror flick "Calvaire (The Ordeal)" by the young Belgian director Fabrice du Welz.

Both of those are potential cult films delivered with integrity and tremendous craftsmanship; "Lunacy," to my way of thinking, is one of the best films of the year. Both are defiantly and decisively not for everyone. Fans of the Gothic, the bizarre and the extreme will be delighted. If your ears perk up when I mention Alejandro Jodorowsky's "Topo," or William Peter Blatty's "Ninth Configuration," you're tuned to the right channel. But if you're not interested in spending time in a lunatic asylum infested with chickens ("Lunacy") or observing the homoerotic barroom stomp-dance rituals of rural Belgium ("Calvaire"), perhaps you'd better move on.

This extraordinary week of releases even offers other things to move on to. Brazilian director Andrucha Waddington's festival favorite, "The House of Sand," is a gorgeous landscape picture that belongs to a different tradition, the art-house spectacles of Antonioni, Kurosawa or Jane Campion. Last but not least, we have Hans Canosa's "Conversations With Other Women," a sexy and intriguing little talkfest about a one-night stand whose participants (Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart) know each other better than we at first realize.

"Lunacy": From Europe's master surrealist, a dark fable of meat, freedom and madness
If you know anything about contemporary animation, you don't need me to convince you that the 72-year-old Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer is a master of the form. His claymation and stop-motion shorts of the '70s and '80s (especially "The Castle of Otranto," "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "Dimensions of Dialogue"), combining ghoulish humor, a fascination with death and decay, and flat-out zaniness, trickled out to the Western world and had a prodigious impact on other artists and filmmakers. The aesthetic that has made Tim Burton a millionaire is little more than watered-down Svankmajer.

That said, I haven't been a huge fan of Svankmajer's forays into live-action feature films. Or not until now. His 1987 version of "Alice" struck me as small-minded when compared to its source material, and his 2000 "Little Otik," an adaptation of a traditional Czech fairy tale, was arid and emotionally constricted. But "Lunacy," which blends the plots of a couple of Edgar Allan Poe stories with the philosophy of the Marquis de Sade, is a satirical masterpiece, as rich, dark and sinful as the chocolate cake several characters eat during a blasphemous and memorable sex scene.

In a world where images have largely lost the power to shock anyone (except those who make it their business to be permanently shocked), Svankmajer understands that such images must accompany ideas in order to be truly outrageous. On its surface, "Lunacy" is a ribald, overcooked fable about an earnest young man named Jean Berlot (Pavel Liska), whose travels through the modern Czech countryside bring him under the spell of the mysterious Marquis (Jan Tríska), who travels by coach, wears a wig, and generally lives as if it were the 18th century, in defiance of the world of cars, motorways and prefab housing around him.

Jean's adventures with the depraved Marquis, and with the beautiful Charlotte (Anna Geislerová), a girl the Marquis has apparently perverted and enslaved, provide a funhouse-mirror reflection of recent political history, maybe not just in the Czech Republic or Eastern Europe after communism, but all over the world since the birth of the Enlightenment. It seems to be true, as Charlotte insists, that the Marquis and his psychiatrist friend Dr. Murlloppe (Jaroslav Dusek) are lunatics who have staged a rebellion in a mental hospital, overthrown the official authorities, and installed their own regime of anarchy and libertinage.

But is the Marquis' lawless institution, plagued by violence, open fornication and wandering chickens, better or worse than the brutal law-and-order reign of Dr. Coulmiere (Martin Huba), whom the inmates have tarred, feathered and imprisoned in the basement? Will Jean be a hero or a traitor if he frees the old rulers and saves Charlotte from further debauchery?

Viewers familiar with the Marquis de Sade's life and work will recognize that Svankmajer has borrowed not just elements of Sade's philosophy but also his actual biography, since much of his later life was spent in a post-revolution French loony bin. But "Lunacy" doesn't sentimentalize Sade, or try to remake him as a rakish avatar of democracy (as in Philip Kaufman's dreary "Quills").

To his immense credit, Svankmajer does not think the questions raised by the Marquis' challenge to authority have answers. He interrupts the live action with trademark animated sequences featuring hunks of raw meat breathing, breeding, copulating and generally frolicking like a horde of happy slugs. If anything, these comic-horrific images suggest that revolutionary switchbacks from "tyranny" to "freedom" and back again make little difference to human beings, whom he sees as instinct-driven meat puppets pursuing primitive gratification.

On the other hand, Svankmajer finally seems comfortable with human actors, and the interplay between Liska's doleful, dutiful Jean and Tríska's cackling, overamped Marquis lends the film an edgy, unstable warmth. Juraj Galvánek's cinematography is full of gruesome delights and ominous atmosphere; sadly, this is Svankmajer's last film to feature production design by his late wife, the surrealist painter Eva Svankmajerová.

The director himself appears at the beginning of the film, informing us soberly that we are about to see a horror film, "with all the degeneracy peculiar to that genre," and not a work of art. "Today, art is all but dead anyway," he goes on. All we have left is "a kind of trailer for the reflection of the face of Narcissus." If those words warm your heart, well, you may be the same kind of cynical creep I am. And you may be ready to see this morbid, extravagant and hilarious film. It's a signature work of these terrible times.

"Lunacy" is now playing at Film Forum in New York. Opens Aug. 18 in Los Angeles; Aug. 25 in San Francisco; Sept. 8 in Boston, Denver and Sunrise, Fla.; Sept. 15 in Austin; Sept. 29 in Dallas and Houston; Oct. 13 in Santa Fe, N.M., and Seattle; Oct. 20 in Pittsburgh; and Oct. 27 in Chicago and St. Louis, with other cities to follow.

"The House of Sand": A household of women, lost in the dunes of 20th century art film
Veering 180 degrees in another direction, "The House of Sand," the second feature from Brazilian director Andrucha Waddington (after "Me You Them" in 2000), is striving for a grand, serious, pictorial timelessness. It's an impressive film, beautifully photographed and marvelously acted. But is it more than a set of undeniably gorgeous affectations? I can't decide; you'd better see it and make up your own mind.

Set in the impressively barren dunes of Maranhão, in the far north of Brazil, "The House of Sand" begins in 1910, when a group of white settlers arrives in the region and briefly attempts to build a village around a few shallow lagoons (in dry weather, they're more like puddles). These settlers are led by Vasco (Ruy Guerra), a patriarch in late middle age who is obsessed with the region and brutally dominates his young wife, Aurea (Fernanda Torres), and her mother, Donha Maria (Fernanda Montenegro).

Vasco soon meets a violent death as a result of his hubris, and the rest of the film follows Donha Maria, Aurea and Aurea's daughter, Maria (unborn at the beginning of the story), across six decades as they scramble to survive in Maranhão and intermittently try to escape. There are occasionally men in the picture, including Massu (Seu Jorge), the handsome grandson of a refugee slave, and Luiz (Enrique Diaz), a military officer passing through on an expedition. But mostly we've got the horizontal vastness of the sand and the equally handsome vertical figures of Montenegro and Torres, the real-life mother and daughter who are Brazil's leading actresses.

In effect, "The House of Sand" is a showcase for those two -- it was written for them -- and that may be more than enough reason for its existence. Montenegro is known best to American audiences for her Oscar-nominated role in Walter Salles' "Central Station," but it's Torres (who is also Waddington's wife) who is the real focus here. The film's long chronological arc provides both actresses with multiple roles: Montenegro first plays Donha Maria, Aurea's mother, then plays Aurea herself as a middle-aged and older woman, and finally plays Maria, Aurea's daughter, when Maria reaches middle age. Torres first plays Aurea as a young, sexually frustrated widow yearning to escape from the dunes, and then her daughter, Maria, as a promiscuous, rebellious adult.

"The House of Sand" is without doubt the most prestigious production to emerge so far from Brazil's booming film industry, and I have to say I have mixed feelings about it. As a languid, semi-erotic and almost wordless spectacle, it's highly effective. But almost everything in the picture, from the intense, slow-burn performances to the meticulous production design and the Spartan, unmusical soundtrack, feels borrowed and amalgamated from classic European and Asian art cinema. Think Antonioni and Kurosawa, with liberal dashes of "The Piano" and "Woman in the Dunes." Hell, there are worse things.

"The House of Sand" opens Aug. 11 in New York and Los Angeles, with a national rollout to follow.

Fast forward: "Deliverance" meets "Texas Chain Saw" in the Belgian outback; talking dirty in "Conversations With Other Women"
Belgium: What's the deal? Does living in a small, flat and boring country make you all freaks or what? No one has yet explained to me why Belgian cinema has become a hotbed of interesting and adventurous films, but it's true anyway. (And why is it only French-speaking Belgium? Aren't there any weird, art-damaged Flemings out there?)

Leaving aside that fascinating topic, I think Fabrice du Welz's debut feature "Calvaire (The Ordeal)" marks the high point so far of Eurohorror, the recent effort to adapt the most fundamentally American of movie genres to the peculiar circumstances of contemporary Europe. (We're not counting something like Eli Roth's "Hostel," which is ersatz Eurohorror, an imitation of an imitation.) At its best, Eurohorror imports the plots and villains of classic horror movies but establishes them in stark, realistic settings and avoids the most calcified American genre clichés.

"Calvaire" offers an archetypal setup, in which a handsome but naive protagonist winds up in the rural backwoods, at the hands of some natives who are much, much too friendly. Du Welz rips off more movies than I can count, from "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" to "The Shining," "Deliverance," "Misery" and "Psycho," but the results are so insane, so blackly hilarious and, yes, so horrifying, that I can't object.

Let's begin with the fact that our so-called hero, Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) is a low-end Tom Jones-style lounge singer who thrills Belgian women of a certain age. He thrills them a lot; nude Polaroids are thrust into his hand, and his hand is thrust into places where no other hand has ventured for some time. Is he a nice or likable guy? It's hard to say; he's good-looking but diffident, and seems almost entirely passive with his lustful admirers.

When Marc's van breaks down in the nowheresville region of Fagnes, sometimes referred to as the Siberia of Belgium, he finds a half-abandoned inn run by a sad-sack former comedian named Bartel (Jackie Berroyer). Bartel is mourning the wife who ran off some years ago and seems overly delighted to have the company of a real performing artist; his only friend is a local named Boris (Jean-Luc Couchard), who seems similarly preoccupied with his missing dog.

I'm not even going to hint at where "Calvaire" goes from there; let's just say that the aforementioned barroom dance scene (set to discordant piano music), and the fact that Boris kidnaps a calf, believing it to be his lost dog, are not the strangest things in the picture. "Calvaire" isn't for the squeamish (and the Fagnes tourist board sure won't like it) but to my taste it never crosses the line into pointless sadism. It's an intensely crafted and genuinely memorable horror film from a striking new talent. (Opens Aug. 11 in New York, with other cities to follow.)

In "Conversations With Other Women," Helena Bonham Carter plays a character identified in the credits as "Woman," while Aaron Eckhart's character is known only as "Man." Add that to director Hans Canosa's reliance on the split-screen technique (while one character is talking, we can also watch the other one listening) -- and the fact that look-alike actors play the same two characters as younger people -- and you might think we're in the realm of unbearable pretension.

Strangely, we're not. I still don't know what the title means (there aren't really any other women in the film, or any conversations with them), but Canosa's talky, mini-Chekhovian anatomy of a pickup is witty and surprisingly effective. Carter and Eckhart's characters meet at a wedding, where she's a bridesmaid and he's a relative. They begin to flirt, and at first we think they don't know each other. Next we think they used to know each other a little, and bit by bit it becomes clear that, yes, they're about to go to bed and, yes, they used to know each other very well indeed.

I found the film powerfully erotic, although it has minimal nudity and no explicit sex. That goes back to the old saw that the best sex is in your head; Canosa's rapid, back-and-forth dialogue captures the unique intensity of the kind of flirtation that's leading straight to the sack, and who among us has not had that experience (or at least a near-miss) amid the drunkenness of a wedding party? Carter and Eckhart may both be doing a little indie film like this because their Hollywood careers haven't quite worked out, but never mind. They're both terrific here as damaged, mostly likable people determined to rub salt in each other's wounds one more time. God knows we can all identify with that. (Opens Aug. 11 in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco; and Aug. 25 in Chicago and Seattle, with more cities to follow.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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