Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 release of Conspirators of Pleasure.
Although no-one could ever accuse Jan Svankmajer of playing safe (just about any one of his thirty films to date would establish him as one of the world’s most deliriously imaginative and unpredictable directors), it’s certainly true that his first two features Alice and Faust were rather less groundbreaking than many of his greatest shorts.
Based on well-known literary classics, they contained more than their fair share of authentically eye-popping moments, and Faust in particular was a genuinely original reimagining of an age-old legend, but all too often they felt as though a master of the short film was somewhat uncertain about how to go about tackling a larger canvas (Alice in particular felt like half a dozen shorts joined together rather than a fully-achieved feature).
Not that there’s anything wrong with that – after all, indisputably major artists such as Frederic Chopin and Raymond Carver spent most of their careers working in short forms as well – but the great thing about Svankmajer’s third feature Conspirators of Pleasure is that he’s finally managed to bring off a feature that is in every way as challenging, provocative, original and darkly funny as his very best work.
So what’s it about? Well, in a nutshell, and put as bluntly as possible, six people decide to have a wank… and then have one. And if you think that makes it sound little more than a crude porno flick, you’re simultaneously spot on and miles off.
Svankmajer has described Conspirators of Pleasure as being the first entirely pornographic film that doesn’t contain a single conventionally pornographic image – in fact, were you to remove the opening credits, there’s little in the film that would cause any censor to bat an eyelid – or rather, if cuts were requested, the censor would have to justify them, which would mean admitting to seeing hidden perversions in the most outwardly innocent material (mind you, this is nothing new – one of the BBFC’s most famous verdicts was on the surrealist short La Coquille et le Clergyman and went “This film is so cryptic as to be almost meaningless – if there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable”).
All this, needless to say, is part of Svankmajer’s theme – our notions of pleasure, particularly sexual pleasure, are frequently derived from images and objects that trigger off pleasurable sensations or memories. As a result, ordinary everyday items such as bread balls, fur stoles, rolling pins and glue become, through Svankmajer’s eyes, as illicit and intriguing as any more outwardly pornographic material (a character buys some pornography at the beginning of the film, but purely as the basis for a papier-mâché creation, not to use in the more conventional sense). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that is quite so obsessively fetishistic – almost everything that passes in front of his camera is given a weirdly erotic charge.
The six characters are described as “conspirators”, though they never really interact, or at least not beyond exchanging the odd furtive glance when they pass each other in the street or on the stairs. Not the least of the film’s achievements is that it manages to present a portrait of human sexuality of unusual complexity and philosophical depth without once resorting to spoken dialogue – there was one subtitle in the UK release print, but this version, taken from the original Czech version, doesn’t even have that (for the record, the note that the postwoman delivers translates as “On Sunday”).
So how do these people get their kicks? Mr Pivonka builds a chicken costume with bat wings (a reference, though it’s never made explicit in the film, to a Max Ernst painting) in which he throws rocks at an effigy of his opposite neighbour, Mrs Loubalová. She, in turn, dresses as a dominatrix and mutilates and humiliates an effigy of him (their fevered imaginations bringing the effigies to jerkily animated life).
Meanwhile, their postwoman rolls pieces of bread up into small balls, which she sucks up her nose and into her head by means of a length of rubber tubing, Mr Beltinsky (whose extreme sensitivity to tactile surfaces is signalled by operatic arias bursting in his head every time he sees something strokable, be it a fur stole or a box of drawing pins) constructs various objects based on the general theme of rolling pins covered in intriguing textures, his newsreader wife reads the news while having her toes sucked by two giant carp, while electronics hobbyist Mr Kula, who has developed a pathological obsession with her image, builds a Heath Robinsonesque extension to his television that will embrace, stroke and masturbate him whenever she appears on screen.
If all this sounds completely ludicrous, that’s Svankmajer’s point: human sexuality is by its very nature absurd, and most other species would be baffled at the lengths we go to to achieve gratification. His “conspirators” live an utterly sterile existence (two of them are married, but there’s no evidence of any warmth between them), dedicated only to their own selfish ends – and this selfishness is rammed home in the film’s final minutes, where it’s revealed that these fantasies have appalling real-world consequences.
The film’s very last shot, of a wardrobe door opening, is a classic example of Svankmajer’s extraordinary ability to cram a whole encyclopaedia of information into an outwardly simple image – not to mention emotional content: in context, the shot is fascinating, intensely disturbing and hilarious all at the same time.
And I stress the word “hilarious”, because if you’re anywhere close to Svankmajer’s admittedly highly individual wavelength, Conspirators of Pleasure is laugh-out-loud funny pretty much from beginning to end. I vividly remember the audience reaction at the film’s British premiere: a near-constant stream of private, isolated giggling, every so often coming together in a collective belly laugh. In many ways, those of us in the audience mirrored the conspirators in the film – we laughed because the images and ideas triggered off personal fantasies of our own: it was the laughter of sometimes uncomfortable recognition.
And that’s where the film differs sharply from a more conventionally pornographic film, because most of those are po-faced in the extreme, as if the merest hint of laughter would dispel the supposedly mindblowingly erotic atmosphere that the director has (or thinks he has) created. Svankmajer’s control of his material is so sure that he can afford to let us laugh: the film’s more serious undertones are still going to come across regardless.
Oddly enough for such an overwhelmingly visual director (the vast majority of his films have no spoken dialogue at all), Svankmajer’s work doesn’t generally need much in the way of presentational frills. He almost always shoots in 4:3, so you don’t need an anamorphic transfer, the sound is usually mono, so anything halfway audible will suffice – in other words, nothing that would particularly stretch the DVD format.
So why should you watch his films on DVD and not VHS? It’s because Svankmajer’s obsession with the surface and texture of objects demands the highest possible resolution – ideally a 35mm print, but DVD is clearly the next best choice, especially when there are no serious problems with the transfer.
There’s really very little to say about the DVD picture – there’s a very slight grainy texture, and a couple of the darker sequences appear to have been artificially lightened to a limited extent, but there’s nothing that’s seriously distracting, and the basic print is in well-nigh perfect condition.
Kino generally doesn’t mention the sound format of its discs, so I’m going to have to resort to guesswork – I’d say it’s Dolby 2.0, and it’s an admirably sharp, clean transfer that makes the most of Svankmajer’s fondness for aggressive, punctuating sound effects. Rather less satisfactory is the number of chapter stops – there are only six of them, which is barely adequate for an 83-minute feature.
Whereas the Faust DVD wasted the format’s potential by including no extras at all, this one does at least throw in one of his short films as support (in a superb transfer, what’s more). You’d imagine that a film by Jan Svankmajer entitled Food would be unutterably disgusting, and I’m delighted to confirm that this 1992 opus fully lives up to expectations.
Made up of three sections, ‘Breakfast’, ‘Lunch’ and ‘Dinner’ (each, thankfully, have been separately indexed), it starts with the customers at a greasy spoon café using each other as human dumb waiters dispensing breakfast (as with most Svankmajer conceptions, mere verbal description is hopelessly inadequate at conveying this!), moving on to observe two men in a restaurant attempting to catch the waiter’s eye, failing, and resorting to eating the utensils, furniture, their clothes and each other in an attempt to assuage their hunger. Finally, a mercifully short coda sees various meals made up of limbs and other human organs given the full 3-star Michelin treatment – but what’s most disturbing about this pushed-to-extremes variant on the “you are what you eat” principle is that the body parts in question belong to the diners themselves.
The technical brilliance of the middle section demonstrates better than anything else on this DVD why Svankmajer is ranked at the very highest level when it comes to pure animation technique, as it blends live action with flawless and alarmingly realistic claymation in order to depict a man ingesting and swallowing impossibly large objects in one gulp. It’s arguable that these effects could also be achieved with CGI imagery, but Svankmajer has always rejected the use of computers in his work, not for any Luddite reasons but simply because he claims he can only work in a genuine three-dimensional space with objects that are clearly and obviously real.
And this is at least one of the reasons why his work is that much more unsettling than many of his rivals – instead of creating images out of nothing, he breathes life into what’s supposed to be inanimate. He’s one of the cinema’s true magicians (it’s no coincidence that he’s revered by the likes of Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Nick Park and just about everyone in the animation profession), and this DVD is as good a starting-point as any for those who have yet to discover his work.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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