The always unnerving work of Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer is often described as blending live action and animation, but it might be more accurate to say that, in his disquieting vision, "inanimate" objects have a life of their own while living creatures-especially humans-obey the laws of mechanics and physics but rarely of psychology. Here in his fifth feature-length work, which he describes as "a philosophical horror film," he mixes elements from the work of Edgar Allan Poe and the Marquis de Sade-two "decadent" artists he admires greatly-to explore the limits of absolute freedom, manipulation and repression by civilization, and the meaning of madness. Although the story appears to be set in France in the early 19th century, it contains a number of intentional anachronisms to remind us that this is an allegory of the crazy modern world. Plagued by recurring nightmares in which he is taken to a madhouse, young Jean Berlot is returning from his mother's funeral when he encounters a Marquis, who invites him to spend the night in his castle. There Berlot witnesses a blasphemous orgy and a "therapeutic" funeral. Later, he is taken to an asylum, where the inmates have complete freedom and the staff are kept locked behind bars. As always in Švankmajer's work, part of the fun is its delight in bad taste and transgressive images: severed eyeballs, animated pigs' brains, and tongues which move like snakes across tabletops.
Born in Prague in 1934, Jan Švankmajer studied directing and stage design in the Department of Puppetry at the Academy of Performing Arts, and worked at the famed Laterna magika theater. In addition to his film work, he has written a number of scenarios and tactile poems, and has for years been at the center of the avant-garde Prague Surrealist Group. His uncompromising moral stance brought him into frequent conflict with the authorities during the period of "normalization" following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. His films have been a major influence on the work of the Brothers Quay, Terry Gilliam, and Tim Burton, among others. He has made dozens of shorts including A Game with Stones (1965), The Ossuary (1970), Jabberwocky (1971), Dimensions of Dialogue (1982), Meat Love (1989), and Food (1992). His other feature-length works include Alice (1987), Faust (1994), Conspirators of Pleasure (1996), and Little Otek (2000).