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Dose of Surrealism is packed with ideas but doesn't go down easily

August 18, 2006|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

"Surreal" is one of those terms whose meaning has become obscured from overuse, dulling its edge and losing its original connection to a specific form of artistic practice. Described by the French writer Andre Breton as "pure psychic automatism," Surrealism was interested in using dream logic as well such primal concepts as religion and sex to get at some sense of meaning that was beyond literal understanding, an implied feeling that bypassed all description and could never be exactly pinned down.

Veteran Czech filmmaker and animator Jan Svankmajer is a Surrealist in this true-school way. His films are full of imagery that is shocking and inexplicable, deeply troubling and yet somehow compelling.

"Lunacy" opens with a direct address from the filmmaker, explaining that what follows is "a horror film -- with all the degeneracy peculiar to that genre." It is at once a heads-up and something of a William Castle-style exploitation gag. From there the film continues to chart multiple streams, as in one story line in which a young man (Pavel Liska) is lured by someone known as the Marquis (Jan Triska) into a world of asylums, orgies and generally freaky unpleasantness. On a parallel track, a squadron of animated meat makes a cradle-to-the-grave journey.

Much like Jean-Luc Godard, another 70-something European filmmaker, Svankmajer is working entirely divorced from any concerns with contemporary practices or styles, preferring to work in a mode that is more self-consciously timeless. "Lunacy" references Edgar Allan Poe, the Marquis de Sade and French painter Delacroix, mapping a whole system of ideas that is a welcome respite from the constant deluge of trivial information effluvium in the instant message age.

If this all sounds rather like stern eat-your-vegetables cinema -- good for you but not entirely enjoyable -- that impression is not entirely off-base. For all its visual surprises and visceral shocks, "Lunacy" is still the kind of film that is easier to admire than it is to actually like.



MPAA rating: Unrated

A Zeitgeist Films release. Writer-director Jan Svankmajer. Producer Jaromir Kallista. Director of photography Juraj Galvanek. Editor Marie Zemanova. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes. In Czech with English subtitles.

Exclusively for one week at Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.

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