Thursday, July 06, 2006

Conspirators of Pleasure by Jan Svankmajer

It is interesting to think how sexual desire brings people close to each other and at the same time also forces them to retreat into their own private and isolated world of secret fantasies and desires. The reason might be anything--social repression, one's own inhibitions, lack of reciprocation from the other. It might also be because of the fact that we generally live by the reality principle rather than the pleasure principle (as Freud says) in the interests of overall order in the society. There is also something in desire that can never be communicated using standard representational medium (like language) which inevitably leads to isolation of the individual consciousness, at least in this particular domain.

I was thinking about all this after watching this bizarre masterpiece Conspirators of Pleasure by the avant-garde surrealist filmmaker from the Czech republic, Jan Svankmajer. Svankmajer is mainly famous for his work in stop motion animation, inspiring such luminaries like Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton. The Brothers Quay (none of whose films I have seen yet) also call him their mentor. Conspirators of Pleasure is one of the few full length feature films that he has made in his long career. It is basically a live action film which contains a few sequences of stop motion animation. It is really weird, the way he mixes both.

The film's premise is very simple. It is about six fetishists (three women and three men) who go about enacting their bizarre autoerotic rituals for the entire duration of the film. Their paths criss-cross with each other but they never exchange anything other than a secret glance. The film is dialogueless, although it contains some music which is very innovatively used. The film starts with one Mr. Pivoine, a mild mannered bachelor, visiting a magazine shop and picking up a copy of a porn magazine. He comes home and asks his neighbour, an obese and portly woman, to slaughter a chicken for him which she does with a relish. He then prepares a papier mache of chicken's head by using the feathers of the real chicken and the papers of the porn magazine and using the model of the real dead chicken. He then cuts up an umbrella and makes a bat like wings for himself. But for what purpose? Well, he has secretly made a mannequin doll modeled on his neighbour and he wants to do things to her, like jumping around and throwing a stone (a papier mache again) on her head! Not surprisingly, his neighbour harbours a similar reciprocal murderous lust for him. She has made a similar mannequin of her neighbour which she whips and then drowns it in a bucket of water. Did I mention that these mannequins move in a weird manner when the two human beings interact with them? And also that we get brief glimpse of the male mannequin's penis?

There are more people whose lives criss cross with these two. The magazine vendor, from whom the man bought his porn magazine, is obsessed with a female newsreader. He has made a bizarre contraption with robotic hands which massage and masturbate him while he kisses her on TV! The newsreader in return is living a lonely life of her own. Her husband is busy in the garage with his own assortment of erotic objects, which in his case means cylindrical objects made of fur and needles with which he rubs his naked body. The newsreader's only solace comes from a pair of fish that she keeps in a tub. When the magazine vendor is kissing her on TV, she starts having her own orgasm by having her toes sucked by the pair of fish! Then finally there is this postwoman who makes small balls out of the inside of bread and snorts it up her nose and puts it inside her ears (filling up her "holes"?). She then takes the balls out and sends it in a packet to the newsreader who feeds those to her fish.

It all sounds really absurd and comic. Well, it looks even more absurd and is even funnier in the movie, which is exactly what is Svankmajer's point. Isn't it strange how sexual desire, whose sole purpose from an evolutionary point of view was to force people to mate and beget offsprings, became so complex in case of human beings? When desire gets coupled with imagination...well it is difficult to guess where it will finally go. So finally, what does this all really mean? Other than the standard Freudian interpretation of repression and sublimation of desire, the film also has an overt political undercurrent. The six characters are all engaged in a private and secret rebellion against the structures of repression and are utilizing and channelizing their erotic energy and potential for their own fulfillment and happiness. The title is significant here too. All the six characters exchange sly, knowing glances with each other as if they were some member of the same underground movement! In the end there is a hint too that each of them learns from the other about a new series of erotic rituals. Svankmajer also points out in the final scene the impossibility of acting out those fantastical desires in real, which finally turns the film into a poignant commentary on individual isolation and futility of sexual longing. Also, why progress of civilization and maintenance of order in society (taken from Freud) must mean repressing most of our sexual instincts which are essentially anarchistic and disruptive. He also seems to suggest that true sexual fulfillment is possible only in solitary confinement (haha... that's slightly unfair!).

On the same topic of sexual repression and liberation, I remember listening to an interview with the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. He said that he finds "nothing more miserable today than those people who organize their life in order to enjoy themselves." He was making the point that under the late capitalist society it is not liberating oneself from the shackles of repressive structures that matters, rather it is to free ourselves from the compulsion to satisfy an endless, artificial and irrational set of desires on which our genuine fulfillment depends. This is also the point that the French author Michel Houellebecq makes in his novels. The consumerist and capitalist structures don't find sexual expression subversive, rather they actively encourage it (through media, advertising and other elements of the culture industry) first and then after commodifying it, find ways to sell their products which satisfy those desires. And once these desires are satisfied a new set is invented, commodified, sold and the cycle continues and the capitalist economy prospers... This is also why Svankmajer and other votaries of sexual liberation will surely balk at pornography because most of it has nothing to do with natural sexual expression. Rather these are just commercial enterprises, selling products to satiate artificially created desires. A genuine sexual liberation will only mean, and I think this movie supports it too, the sharpening of one's erotic imagination and channeling (or sublimating) it into some creative enterprise.

In the end credits the film explicitly mentions Luis Bunuel, Max Ernst, Freud and de Sade as its inspirations. All this and my pseudo-commentary shouldn't distract from the fact that it is extremely funny, entertaining and fiercely original work of art. Very highly recommended. Though the subject is sex, the film doesn't contain any nudity. Except perhaps in the title sequence which has a series of pornographic images from some medieval text. Some links: A review from the deep focus magazine here. Another one from the sight and sound magazine here. This is the official Svankmajer site which is very comprehensive although poorly designed (I wonder if it is surrealistic!). And this is an entry about the a retrospective at the film forum. Contains this quote from Anthony Lane of The New Yorker: "The last great obsessive in cinema! The end of a distinguished line that goes back to Orson Welles, Luis Bunuel, and Carl Theodor Dreyer."


Jabberwock said...

Very interesting. I enjoy the work of the other great obsessives, will check this guy out too...

Alok said...

thanks and hope you like it!