If you're looking for a pleasant night out to help your mom celebrate her birthday, unless she's Irma Grese, the Bitch of Belsen, you better look elsewhere.
On the surface, Jan Svankmajer's surrealist black comedy is about a man who may or may not be insane and his adventures with a Marquis who may or may not be insane as they tour a madhouse run by a staff that may or may not be insane. Odds are that they're all lunatics, but that's just my opinion and, according to this movie's underlying point of view, I may or may not be insane, too.
We tend these days to use some variation of the word "surreal" in place of "it was weird and I don't have a clue what it meant." You know, like an off-the-cuff joke from George W. Bush.
But sometimes "surreal" still refers to an avant-garde art movement, and that is the surreal that describes writer/director Jan Svankmajer's 2005 film Sileni—Lunacy, to you non-Czech speakers.
The film opens with a brief prologue in which Svankmajer addresses us directly, telling us that we are about to see a horror movie, with all of that genre's attendant degeneracy. He warns us that he has borrowed motifs from Poe—he calls his movie an "infantile" tribute to the American gothicist—and adopted the blasphemy and subversion from the Marquis de Sade.
We join the film as a young man named Jean is having a nightmare in which two bald and burly sanitarium attendants are smilingly attempting to put him into a strait-jacket. This dream incorporates some stop motion animation of a shirt crawling across the floor. Many of the film's most intense moments are interrupted by this animation, usually consisting of tongues and eyeballs cavorting on their own to the accompaniment of carousel music.
Jean soon meets the Marquis, an 18th. Century man in the 21st. Century world. Jean is invited to stay a few nights at the Marquis' castle. He accepts, but when he spies the older man conducting a blasphemous parody of the Mass one night, complete with naked altar servers, he decides to take the innocent village maid the Marquis seems determined to corrupt and run away with her.
Instead, he is talked into accompanying the ignobleman on a tour of the local insane asylum where he finds out that the innocent maid is in fact the head nurse. She tells him that the chief doctor and the Marquis are actually inmates who led a mutiny. Now the real hospital staff is locked in the underground dungeon and the loonies are in charge.
By the time the story ends, if it does, telling who's insane and who's lying is impossible so we settle for believing that, as in Alice in Wonderland—a story Svankmajer filmed in 1988—we're all mad here.
It's clear that Svankmajer sees the madhouse as a suitable symbol for modern life. One of the doctors believes in severe corporal punishment and one believes in letting the patients do whatever they want to do. Conservatism and Liberalism, anyone? But since nothing works, who cares?
There is much black humor at work here, and despite the claim that it's a horror movie, Lunacy is never scary on a visceral level. If it creeps you out, it'll probably be due to self-recognition. This observation does not apply to me, of course.
White tie is optional. Strait-jackets are required.