The adjective surreal gets thrown around quite a bit but Jan Švankmajer truly fits the bill. I’m sure Breton and Buñuel would give him their stamp of approval. Švankmajer’s films are disruptive tangles of psychology and politics that aggressively poke and jab at society the way a good surrealist should. Surrealism is not just about dreams and the unconscious it’s about using the irrational to dismantle the hegemony of society.
It takes a creative mind to imagine the bizarre activities in Conspirators of Pleasure. The images and behaviors we witness pile strangeness upon strangeness. A man kills a chicken and nails its head to the wall. Then he makes a large clay sculpture of the head. Then he cuts up porn magazines and Papier-mâchés the clay sculpture. Then he covers the porn plastered chicken head in feathers. Once it’s dry he removes the Papier-mâché from the clay, cuts two holes in it, and wears it as a mask. This is only one step in an ambitious, perverse, obsessive project that he works on in his little apartment.
Each of the 5 characters in the Conspirators of Pleasure has a project that they are secretly, lovingly working on. It gives the audience the feeling that behind every door there is a bizarre idiosyncratic fantasy aching to be fulfilled. From Hitchcock’s Rear Window to Lynch’s Blue Velvet, we are all curious about what our neighbors are doing behind the curtains. We can’t shake the feeling that something torrid and illicit is just under the happy facade of society.
If I were going to liken Conspirators of Pleasure to the work of another director it would have to be Todd Solondz. Solondz is not a surrealist but his films share a sense that everyone is anxiously hiding their true feelings away from society. Both directors see a layer of absurdity that lurks just beneath a thin layer of shame. All of the Švankmajer’s characters have an air of paranoid anxiety.
For these characters, masturbation and fantasy provide a world where they are empowered masters free to satisfy themselves but they can only inhabit these fantasies alone. If their secret world were discovered their status as ruler would be stripped away leaving them feeling like a lowly pervert. For Jean-Paul Sartre, it is only through being seen by others that we are forced to see ourselves. You don’t have to admit to yourself that you are a consumer of porn until someone finds your browsing history. If your friend found out that you were into watching MILFs pee on men’s faces you might be worried that your friend would get the wrong idea about who you are, but perhaps you are that person and it’s only when your friend finds out that you have to admit it.
There are no ethical boundaries in masturbation and fantasy. If you want to imagine raping your mother with a crucifix while screaming the N-word in the privacy of your own bedroom there’s no harm in it and good for you for figuring out what really turns you on. Švankmajer’s characters are able to set aside shame when they are alone and completely indulge themselves. Their elaborate rituals become a surreal treatise on not only sexuality but on society as a whole. Sex is as much about sensuality as it is about society. Oscar Wilde once said, “Everything is about sex, except for sex which is about power.” Švankmajer sees these intersections and freely movies between the individual sphere and the societal sphere, from the individual body to the body politic.
Švankmajer movies have a very specific look and feel to them. Film is not a tactile medium but Švankmajer does everything he can to bridge the gap. Much of Conspirators of Pleasure is shot in extreme close-ups so we can see the textures and details of the objects and people. He then adds greatly exaggerated foley. Everything scratches and slurps its way under the audience’s skin making you feel every facet of what is going on.
In this way, many scenes begin to resemble Greenaway films. Everything feels fleshy and half-rotten. Greenaway uses Dutch Masters still life paintings for inspiration, but Greenaway’s still-lives look like they have been sitting out too long. Their overripe richness heightens their corporeal nature. Both filmmakers are deeply sensual but not in a sweet delicate way. They look at fruit, candles, and a plucked chicken and see sex and death.
Watching Conspirators of Pleasure will give you a dirty mind. Every glove or bottle or umbrella starts to look phallic or vulvic or tempting in some way. We see each of the characters shopping for the elements that make up their fantasies. We watch them caress rubber gloves and smell food secretly testing to see if the object will serve their secret and lascivious purposes.
The contraptions that they build are reminiscent of African Fetish sculptures. Fetish is a colonialist word, in Subsaharan Africa, the sculptures are called minkisi. They are small magic charms imbued with mystical powers by a priest. Like Švankmajer’s inventions, the minkisi are very tactile. They are covered in fur, feathers, oil, and often iron nails. Minkisi are personal. They are given to individuals for specific purposes. They are pieces in an animistic worldview that sees supernatural connections everywhere.
As humans, our brains are driven to find connections and patterns. It is our mind’s most basic function. This drive is so strong that we will find patterns in things regardless of whether they are there or not. We do it every day. This results in superstitions and religions but it also results in sexual fetishes. We connect sexual pleasure with a foot or a rubber duck and then fixate on it. Even as toddlers we are able to imbue a blanket or a teddy bear with special value.
It says something about our psychology but it is also part of what fuels capitalism and Švankmajer wants to highlight that. Underneath our civil society hides a seething cauldron of urges that drive us to buy stuff. Our desires can translate to a more vague sense of needing something that is missing in our lives. We sublimate our urges and buy chair recliners and teeth whitener in an attempt to find satisfaction.
The sex doll industry has experienced a recent renaissance. It has come a long way from the inflatable doll. You can get frightening real latex and silicone mannequin's sent right to your door.
Interestingly people often fall in love with their dolls. There is a guy who brings his in a wheelchair wherever he goes. He takes her on outings like to the zoo. There is another guy who married his and sends out Christmas cards featuring the two of them by the fire. In a strange way, these sex dolls create a kind of reverse objectification where instead of treating a person like an object you treat an object like a person.
The union of human sexuality and capitalism produces an endless parade of ever more bizarre creations and behaviors. Not only can you buy a doll to have sex with, but you can buy a latex suit that will you transform you into a doll to have sex with. They even sell them on Amazon.
In Conspirators of Pleasure, one of the characters creates a robot body for his television set so he can make love to the female news anchor when she appears on screen. It’s both pathetic and heroic. He is a lonely man who might benefit from spending time with real people, but he is also a creative and ingenious man who unabashedly embraces his sexuality and finds a way to satisfy himself.
There is something magical about intangible fantasies blending with the physicality of orgasm. We imagine something unreal to illicit a real result.
The last third of the film (don’t worry no spoilers) blurs this line and allows the fantasies to mingle with reality. This combination is where things can get dangerous. It’s fine to fantasize about fellating the great Dane you see going for a walk every day but it can quickly become a problem if you try it for real.
Švankmajer made Conspirators of Pleasure in 1996 in the Czech Republic. Like most of his films, it has stop motion passages. Once each character has meticulously set up their fantasies Švankmajer uses stop motion to bring the fantasies to life. It emphasizes that what we are seeing is the subjective experience of the fantasizer. By the end of the film, the subjectivity of what we have been witnessing is challenged. The boundary between fantasy and reality begins to fall apart throwing everything that we have seen into question. The ultimate surreal experience is when something intangible from our inner world is inexplicably manifested in the real world. Its presence unnerves us because anything can happen in our fantasy life but we are counting on our waking life to obey certain rules. Without the predictable banality of ordinary life, the anxiety of the unknown would overwhelm us.
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