A horror movie testing two approaches to running an insane asylum – absolute freedom versus control and punishment – within the context of a world that combines the worst of both. Jean Berlot, a young man subject to a nightmare of being forced into a straitjacket by two orderlies, is befriended by a marquis. At the marquis’s estate, Jean witnesses a black Mass, buries someone alive, and is invited to try preventive therapy. He’s willing to enter a sanatorium because he believes he can rescue a young woman from there who has told him that the real director and staff of the clinic are locked in the basement. Jean conspires with her to set them free: the horrors have only begun.
“Lunacy” (also known by its original title, ‘Sileni’) opens with a short word from Jan Svankmajer, an accomplished director from the Czech Republic, in which he explains the specific nature of lunacy that the film will explore and the influence that Edgar Allen Poe and the Marquis de Sade had as well. Though not the first time a film comes with an introduction, whether by directors or actors, this time perhaps isn’t necessary but worth having as a primer for all the nuanced ways in which its theme is explored. There’s also a large similarity to another classic piece of fiction; “Alice in Wonderland,” and this movie takes you down the rabbit hole long before you know you’ve gone down it.
Jean Berlot (Pavel Liska) is troubled by nightmares, and after an incident at a hotel he is befriended by a Marquis (Jan Triska) who takes him to his estate. There he is subjected to debauchery and horrors that the Marquis explains are part of a type of preventative therapy which he thinks would help relieve Berlot of his nightmares. Once at the asylum Berlot agrees to have himself committed in order to save Charlotte (Anna Geislerova) whose motives are quickly called into question.
This is a superb and experienced cast who’ve worked together on other films together, though only Triska (‘The People vs. Larry Flint,’ ‘Apt Pupil,’ ‘Ronin’) may be recognizable to American audiences. Clearly modeled after the Marquis de Sade, Triska plays the Marquis with so much mad clarity as he laughs wantonly and then speaks clearly and forthrightly. Were it not for the absurdity of his philosophical ranting you might misunderstand why you had never thought of it like that before. If you’ve ever actually read anything by the Marquis de Sade then you’ll be familiar with the balance between scenes of rambling philosophy that lead into the mad, justifying the following scenes of debauchery and depravity.
Though it may not be what we consider traditionally scary “Lunacy” is truly horrifying in its insanity. Reality skews in both directions so you never know what is true, moreover, when you think you’ve come to an understanding that trust is tested but never broken leaving you in a state of constant flux about the mental and emotional state of the characters. What better definition of insanity is there than believing things to be true that aren’t as well as not being able to tell the difference? “Lunacy”, with a mad grace, accomplishes both with an unnervingly well constructed script.
Interspersed throughout the narrative is a collection of stop animation sequences of various animal parts; cuts of meat, eyeballs, tongues and brains which at first are unsettling but soon add an important atmosphere to the milieu of the story. Svankmajer has experience with stop animation with his creepy and direct “Alice.” Though not as clean an animation as say “The Nightmare Before Christmas” there are still moments where I found myself wondering how it was done. The meaty vignettes may initially befuddle but become poignant bookends.
Aside from those people that are turned off from a movie that they have to “read” there’s a lot of heady symbolism that might cause many to lose interest in “Lunacy.” Couple that with nonsensical and misleading diatribes, those looking for something to jump out and scare you will come away disappointed. Instead the film concentrates on how horrifying losing reality can be and the deadly pitfalls of trusting.
There’s so much depth in “Lunacy” that I continue to find more to glean from it without even having to watch it again, though there is more than enough here to warrant multiple viewings. This is also a great example of how foreign fare proves that complex and engaging horror movies can be still be made while Hollywood continues to try and bank on insipid remakes and sequels. What’s needed are more movies like this; thoughtful and well conceived with flawed yet engaging characters.