Gilbey on Film: Jan Svankmajer's Pop-eyed Genius

Celebrating the re-release of Alice, the director's 1988 masterpiece.

The release last month on DVD and Blu-ray of Jan Svankmajer's 1988 film Alice provided the perfect cure for the hangover of disappointment left by Tim Burton's listless adaptation of the same Lewis Carroll text. Where Burton whipped up Wonderland out of E-numbers and CGI fairy-dust, adding a depthless 3D gloss after the fact, Svankmajer traps us in a dank, claustrophobic world of greys and beiges and graveyard moss-greens that is about as far from a conventional sense of wonder as could be imagined. I remember when I saw it soon after its release, I had the same thought that accompanied my first viewing of Eraserhead: How did this director break into my nightmares? "Close your eyes, otherwise you won't see anything," says Alice (Kristýna Kohoutová), fittingly, at the outset.

Dread accompanies the arrival of each new, pop-eyed, tooth-gnashing creature, laced with our heightened excitement about what sort of gnarled state each of Carroll's characters will be in once they have emerged from the distorting filter of Svankmajer's mind. The March Hare is a mangy, mustard-yellow plush toy; the Mad Hatter is a wooden puppet with a deep-grooved face. After a double decapitation, they scramble around on the floor, each seizing the other's head and attaching it to his own neck before returning calmly to the tea table. Is that the March Hare with the Mad Hatter's head, you find yourself wondering after a time, or the Mad Hatter with the March Hare's body? (The film has that effect on you.) The Caterpillar becomes a sock puppet which improvises a face from a pair of glass eyeballs and a set of false teeth; when the time comes to sleep, it sews a lattice of cotton over its own eyes.

Although Alice occasionally morphs into non-human form -- replaced by a dead-eyed doll or encased inside an Alice-like shell which renders her terrifyingly cadaverous -- she remains the only live human figure in a landscape peopled by the living dead, or the inanimate sprung to life: stop-motion animal skulls and skeletons, stuffed beasts that disgorge their sawdust innards, a bed borne aloft with restlessly beating wings, medical specimens. Hiding behind your fingers provides little respite, as the sound design is just as gruesome, all squeaks, creaks and scratches, flapping, crunching and squelching.

There is a strong streak of cibophobia (fear of food) running through the film, which takes the transformative power of consumption expressed by Carroll and amplifies it into full-blown horror perfectly in keeping with a child's orally fixated experience. Alice handles bread rolls from which long, rusty nails protrude suddenly; tacks render inedible a jar of marmalade, even springing to life inside the gooey jelly; tiny birds' skulls hatch out of rows of eggs, scuttling off in their yolky membrane. Amidst the furore over the refusal of a certificate to the latest Human Centipede film, it's easy to forget that the most enduringly frightening movies often come with U or PG certificates. No wonder Alice introduces this rendering of her own story as "a film made for children -- perhaps." It's enough to engender eating disorders in a generation.

If the film has any value beyond its immediate artistic and imaginative merit, it must be as a lesson in the benefits of liberating yourself from your source material. Using a text as a launchpad rather than a blueprint can often result in a piece of work that is truer in spirit to the original than a more obviously faithful adaptation. Just as J G Ballard once said that he considered Crash to be a more autobiographical novel than the traditionally autobiographical Empire of the Sun, so Svankmajer's Alice gets closer to the troubled core of Carroll than any number of more straitlaced or cosmetically faithful adaptations. It takes flight.

The talk that Svankmajer is giving at the Barbican on Thursday is, predictably, sold out, but there are screenings this week of two of his other features -- Little Otik and last year's Surviving Life (Theory and Practice). Here is an interview I did with him (and his late wife Eva) at the time of the former film's release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The difficulty of staging Ibsen in a post-Yewtree world

The Master Builder at The Old Vic is even stranger than the original - especially when it tries to negotiate modern sensibilities.

Sometimes a cigar, warns a joke dubiously attributed to Sigmund Freud, is just a cigar. And, in other circumstances, a huge church tower that a seductive young woman persuades an ageing man to climb is just a huge church tower. Not, however, in Henrik ­Ibsen’s play The Master Builder, written in 1892, when the Norwegian playwright was 64 and besotted with a younger admirer, and Freud had just begun his revolutionary consultations in Vienna.

That the protagonist, Halvard Solness – an architect who is struggling to get anything up these days – was proto-Freudian when written, but feels satirically psychoanalytical now, is one of two big problems with the play. The other is its tonal instability.

Ibsen dramas broadly divide between the ones with symbolism and trolls (Brand, Peer Gynt) and theatre-redefining exercises in social and psychological realism (A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler). However, there are a few works – including The Master Builder and Little Eyolf, recently finely revived at the Almeida by Richard Eyre – in which naturalism blurs into supernaturalism.

So, just as Little Eyolf’s searingly believable examination of the impact of grief on a marriage also involves a batty rat-catcher who may have caused a child’s death through enchantment, The Master Builder does not so much change horses in mid-race as jump from horseback to unicorn. It starts off as a study of male power in crisis, with Solness a strutting but now stuttering brother to other Ibsen menopausal males, such as Dr Thomas Stockmann in An Enemy of the People and the title character of the disgraced financier in John Gabriel Borkman. Like them, Master Builder Solness is an egotist under threat both professionally (he no longer has much energy for his work but doesn’t want younger colleagues to have the jobs, either) and personally. He taunts his wife by flirting with a female assistant, although there is a suggestion – which David Hare’s nicely contemporary-conversational adaptation firms up with the word “impotent” – that the couple’s sex life died when their children were killed in a fire.

Last year at the National Theatre, Ralph Fiennes moved suddenly to the front rank of British stage actors by bringing extraordinary clarity to the windbag Jack Tanner in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, and his Solness is again magnetically precise: you hear each word, feel every thought. He shows a man who keeps reaching for previously known feelings of power – artistic, erotic, domestic – but finds, like the driver of a failing sports car, that the push isn’t quite there. Fiennes transmits the character’s terror at no longer being terrifying.

But then Ibsen goes troll on us. Towards the end of the first act, a young woman called Hilde Wangel turns up, claiming to be keeping a rendezvous arranged with Solness a decade previously, when he “bent her backwards” and kissed her “many times”, calling her his “princess”. As Hilde would have been 13 then, this scene is almost too realistic for post-Yewtree theatre, and details such as Hilde’s reference to her bag of dirty knickers that urgently need washing (that isn’t Hare being daring; it’s there in the earliest English translations) would have had Freud rushing to the theatre.

Hans Christian Andersen would have been close behind, however, because Hilde also talks of “trolls” and “castles in the air”,  and both she and Solness seem to take seriously the possibility that he may have imagined her or summoned her up. Actors can’t be asked to play a character of ambiguous existence; even a ghost can only be acted substantially. So the young Australian actress Sarah Snook makes Hilde very real and very now – she could have walked in off the backpack gap-year trail – and the director, Matthew Warchus, gives her a moment of great theatrical power, curving urgently through the air as she stands on a swing to see Solness attempt to conquer his fear of heights.

Yet Snook’s naturalistic vigour makes the play even stranger than it already was. If Hilde is a completely unambiguous figure, then either Solness is a paedophile predator, or she is a malicious, marriage-wrecking fantasist – both problematic situations for modern theatregoers. As a result, we are never quite sure what we are watching, although always happy to be seeing Fiennes in his prime.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle