If it was possible for collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Terry Gilliam the result might look something like Lunacy, the latest oddity from Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer. This bizarre "horror film," as the director simply labels it, is a vile and depraved examination of mental illness and the methods used to treat it. Wickedly funny and astonishingly conceived, the film is a nonstop cavalcade of shocks, surprises and enchantments. I loved every minute of it, and I can honestly state that I won't see a more brilliant picture at Tribeca this year.
Based loosely on writings by Edgar Allen Poe and inspired by the Marquis de Sade, Lunacy exists in a kind of overlap of present and past, seemingly set in 19th century France but anachronistically punctuated with modern inclusions like automobiles and bluejeans. It tells the ironically tragic story of Jean Berlot (Pavel Liska), a troubled young man on his way home from his mother's funeral. During his stopover at a country inn, he meets The Marquis (Jan Triska), a wealthy nobleman who invites Jan to come and stay with him on his estate. There, Jan witnesses a blasphemous ritual and an eccentric form of therapy, which The Marquis imagines may be helpful in the healing of Jan's own psychological ailments.
The men travel to a nearby asylum run by Dr. Murlloppe (Jaroslav Dusek), who, apparently mad, himself, has a penchant for wearing fake mustaches. The hospital, which encourages its patients' insanity and allows them to run about freely, is as ludicrous as the people residing there. Feathers fill the air, whether from the numerous chickens wandering around or from the pillowcases being torn apart by the lunatics. The atmosphere of the place is dreamlike, both fantastic and nightmarish.
Jan decides to commit himself after falling in love with a nurse named Charlotte (Anna Geislerová), who confesses to him that things at the asylum are not what they seem. He plans to rescue the woman and escape with her, but eventually his own illness impedes his ability to succeed in his goal.
Svankmajer, a student of surrealism and puppetry, sprinkles Lunacy with stop-motion interludes involving meats and brains and eyeballs. Inserted between the film's scenes, the shorts make the story somewhat episodic, though not negatively, and give something additional to look forward to, for those of us who are delighted by tongues animated to appear as though they are copulating or crawling back inside the mouths of horse skulls.
Lunacy is a marvel of imagination and assemblage that must be seen to be completely understood. It is a curiosity, a debauchery, a tribute and a satire. It is not a work of art because Svankmajer, in his introduction of the film, says it is not. So, instead let me call it an ingenious, penetrating entertainment, one that will first stun your senses and then will play on and on inside your numb, paralyzed brain.