Noodles up the nose, murdered dolls, toe-sucking fish – these are the hallmarks of Prague’s zaniest surrealist!
Forget magic realism; this is magic surrealism, of the highest order. Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer owes a debt, which he pays in the closing credits of Conspirators of Pleasure, to Bunuel and Max Ernst, but also to Freud, Sade, and Sacher-Masoch. This brilliantly inspired story of the daily life of six fetishists in Prague resonates with what Andre Breton called “convulsive beauty” – specifically, the transformation of a dreary, dead culture into a wonderland of bizarre personal rituals, accentuated by mannequins, mechanical sex devices, fish, feathers, and fur. Fans of Survival Research Laboratories will find much to admire here; Svankmajer’s vision is similarly comic and despairing, using its pathetic robots, dolls, animals, and animal parts in a devastating social critique.
In the Prague of the film there’s literally no dialogue – only musical backgrounds and ambient sounds – and therefore no communication. The collapse of the social fabric has inspired some of the more driven of the citizenry to weave a new kind of fabric, one where they can replace human warmth and interplay with a mocking mechanical version. A magazine seller is in love with a beautiful blonde newscaster. Since real contact is obviously impossible, he devises an elaborate system of mechanical hands that he attaches to the TV. While the blonde recounts the news, he stands before her kissing the television and being caressed by his mindlessly moving fake hands.
If petit-bourgeois like the magazine seller are secretly reconstructing social relationships in the hidden cramped quarters of a store, local officials are equally susceptible to the lure of the object as a pathway to pleasure. A local cop, no doubt inspired by the violence of his work, embeds nails in a rolling pin, which he slides up and down his naked flesh in what looks like an exercise in religious martyrdom. He’s in fact multitalented, creating a self-tickling device made of the cut-off fingers of rubber gloves, with a bit of fur thrown in for good measure. His wife is the newscaster beloved by the magazine seller, but while hubby is busy tickling and torturing himself, what’s she up to? What else – in another room having her toes sucked by a fish.
The lives of Svankmajer’s characters are absurdly narrow. In the opening sequence we see a man kill a chicken, an act for which he does a kind of penance by fashioning an elaborate chicken head (out of the pages of a porno mag, among other ingredients). He wears this head, along with bat wings, in a dazzling scene where he tries to “murder” a life-size doll based on a hated female neighbor. (It’s implied he hates her because she rejected him.) While the orchestration of effects here – the smashed emotions rechanneled into absurd violence, the pitiful entrapment of the doll – is brutal and disturbing, there’s also a palpable poignancy, as Svankmajer, known for his claymation and marionette work, animates the doll, forcing the audience to confront its terror and bloody destruction.
The director balances this event with its obverse: the hated neighbor, a middle-aged blonde woman, has made her own mannequin, a dead ringer for the man with the chicken head. Like him, she furiously pursues her creation, dressing like a dominatrix and chasing the alarmed doll through her apartment. Her whip-cracking antics tear holes in its straw-filled back. Svankmajer’s replacement of the human being with an inanimate, terrorized double is both hilarious and shocking, implying a world of desperate dehumanization. While the director keeps his human characters mostly expressionless – except when they’re in the throes of their fetish – his dolls and mannequins have a kind of naked anguish that puts the film in a category all its own. In this post-postmodern Grand Guignol, the mail worker who furtively sucks hundreds of small bread-balls into her nose, then blows them back out with a sigh, is just icing on a crazy cake.