Dir/scr: Jan Svankmajer. Czech Rep/Slovakia.2005. 118mins.

The latest nightmare from veteran Czech surrealistJan Svankmajer is, as the director puts it, "aninfantile tribute to Edgar Allen Poe and the Marquis de Sade."But audiences will also see affinities with various cinematic specialists indream logic, notably Luis Buñuel and Walerian Borowczyk.

An exploration of madness,sanity and taboo, Lunacy - alive-action black comedy with stop-motion animated inserts - is pure Svankmajer, perhaps not as revelatory as his earlier Alice and Faust, but rather more focused than his last film Otesánek (2000). Svankmajer'sdevoted following will appreciate Lunacy'suncompromisingly confrontational stance, although its relentlessness and oddlyhermetic feel will make it a hard sell to all but specialised distributors.

Festivals, of course, willwelcome the return of an old-school auteur at his most uncompromisinglymischievous.

Lunacybegins with the mild, sage-like Svankmajer announcingto camera that what we are about to see is not a work of art, but "a horrorfilm, with all the degeneracy peculiar to that genre." Pausing only to watch asevered tongue crawl across the screen, Svankmajerexplains that his film is "an ideological debate about how to run a lunaticasylum", but it soon becomes apparent that the madhouse in question is societyitself. Over the credits, a mangled rendition of the Marseillaise signals thefilm's perverse critique of concepts of revolution and freedom.

Despite its Czech dialogue,the film appears to take place in an imaginary France, in a present day hauntedby anachronistic 18th-century elements.

In an inn, a troubled youngman, Jean Berlot (Liska),suffers a nightmare in which he is attacked by two men in white coats. The nextday, he is befriended by the Marquis (Triska), amysterious figure in period dress, who wafts him off in a horse-drawn carriageto his chateau.There, Jean witnesses the Marquis performing over a ceremonymixing sex and blasphemy.

After witnessing theMarquis's staged 'death' and resurrection, Jean accompanies him to a madhouserun by Dr Murlloppe (Dusek),whose daughter Charlotte (Geislerova) is either theMarquis' innocent victim or his partner in depravity. Here the mad run free,but Jean discovers that Murlloppe is himself insane,and that the former directors of the asylum are locked away in a cell, tarredand feathered.

After a pageant, duringwhich the inmates stage a tableau vivant ofDelacroix's painting Liberty Leading ThePeople, bedlam breaks loose - literally - leading to a sobering final act.

Much of the film comesacross as philosophical old hat, as the Sade-likeMarquis expounds and enacts his theories of libertinage, horrifying thepassive, strait-laced Jean.

However, the film shiftsinto a different gear when it reaches Murlloppe'smadhouse - evoked in strikingly Hogarthian visuals -and especially when the old order is re-established there. It's in the quietlychilling final act that Svankmajer casts his mostcritical light on questions of freedom and authority.

He originally conceived thefilm in 1970, and it's worth asking how the meaning of Lunacy might havechanged over 30 years of Czech political history. What makes an ostensiblystraightforward debate more complex is a strand of animation inserts - in Svankamjer's inimitable style - in which assorted bodyparts (tongues, eyeballs, entrails) and cuts of meatrun wild, to the repetitive sound of a barrel organ, unfettered fleshironically mocking the film's preoccupation with the mind.

Lunacy'sarguments about sexuality, sanity and psychiatry have something of a 1960s ringto them, and much of the imagery, especially where naked women are concerned,could have come straight out of the Eastern European cinema of that period.There's a strong tinge of misogyny, although it could be argued that this is aninescapable legacy of the Surrealist adoration of Sade.

All in all, however, Lunacy is a provocation and a rathermore elusive one that it seems at first. This is pure auteur cinema, with thedirector responsible not only for the animation, but also for the artdirection, together with his late wife and long-time collaborator Eva Svankmajerová, who died last autumn.

Juraj Galvanek's cameraworkgives the film a rough-hewn look, and a plethora of sometimes jarringly extremeclose-ups create an uncomfortably claustrophobic feel.

Lisak - who resembles a young and rather feeble RomanPolanski - makes a rivetingly ineffectual hero, whileTriska's Marquis is slyly satanic. Lunacy may not be a novelty, but rightdown to the last shot's deft visual punchline, it'sstrong meat indeed.

Production companies
Athanor Film Production Company
C-GA Film

International sales
Cinepol International

Jaromir Kalista

Juraj Galvánek

Marie Zemanová

Production design
Eva Svankmajerová
Jan Svankmajer

Veronika Hrubá

Main cast
Pavel Liska
Jan Triska
Anna Geislerová
Jaroslav Dusek