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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Pedro Almodóvar: "I do wake up and feel that the world is coming to an end"

Mark Lawson talks to the director about hope, despair and why he wants to make a sequel to Deadpool.

When Pedro Almodóvar’s characters are in crisis, grief or even comas, they tend towards an optimistic view of the human condition. The Spanish film-maker confesses that this reflects his temperament but reports that he is cur­rently struggling to maintain his enthusiastic world-view off-screen.

“I have to be optimistic, because it’s the only way to survive,” he says, on a trip to London to launch his 20th feature film, Julieta. “I want to think that next month or next year will be better than now. But . . .”
He switches at this point from his near-fluent English to Spanish for translation by Maria Delgado, the Anglo-Spanish academic who is present at his request to act as his interpreter. Modest and wry, suggesting a rare combination of genius and sweetie, Almodóvar uses his home vocabulary for complex issues: in this case, the xenophobic politics, fuelled by fears of terrorism and immigration, that have engulfed European cities, including Madrid, where he lives on the exclusive west side, close to the home of his partner, the actor Fernando Iglesias.

“In Spain, the situation is awful,” he says, backcombing his trademark frizz of now grey hair with one hand. “We are on the edge of the third general election in a year and this is very bad for the country. The country doesn’t actually recognise itself in its institutions: the monarchy [and] the parliament have lost their identity.”

If Spain were to have an EU referendum, would it result in (as it were) Spexit?

“I think we would vote to stay. Brexit has served as an example – I’m sorry to say this – of what shouldn’t happen. And I say that with full respect for the decision taken.”

It’s not just Spanish politics that is challenging his usual equilibrium. “I do wake up and feel that the world is coming to an end. I pray each and every night that Donald Trump does not become US president. And my prayers are actually more significant in this respect because I’m a non-believer, so imagine how heartfelt they are!”

Although Julieta was completed before the Spanish elections, Britain’s EU referendum and the Republican presidential nomination, it is prophetically attuned to the serious mood of the news. Such is the shift in gravity from Almodóvar’s last film, I’m So Excited! – a musical farce set on a jet – that it is as if the Zucker brothers had followed the success of Airplane! with an adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.

“I did set out to approach Julieta with as much sombreness as possible,” he says. “So it really was a matter of rejecting the habitual characteristics of my own cinema, the way I’m identified. I have made 20 movies now and so if there is a possibility to change in the 20th, then it is very welcome . . . There aren’t that many opportunities to change, because one carries on being oneself!”

He became himself 66 years ago in ­Calzada de Calatrava, a Castilian village of a few thousand souls. From his parents – a winemaker father and a mother who wrote and read for uneducated local people – it is tempting to see an inheritance of the sensual pleasure and literary intelligence that mark his films. His early efforts to make cinema were frustrated by the closure of the Spanish national film school in Madrid by Francisco Franco, but the constitutional monarchy that followed the fascist dictator’s death allowed him to start producing work – reflecting his liberal, gay, atheist, male-feminist sensibilities – that would have been unthinkable under the military regime.

Even after more than three decades of creative freedom, Almodóvar feels he needed to have made so many films and accumulated so much life experience before being able to deal with the depth of emotion in Julieta, the story of a character who is unable to communicate with her mother, because of Alzheimer’s disease, or her daughter, from whom she is estranged. Although it tones down the comic warmth of his signature films and eschews their fantastical sequences, Julieta is recognisably the work of a great original. For instance, a potentially crucial meeting between two characters, which in a Hollywood version might last half of the film, simply does not appear here.

What Almodóvar also does is fill each film with images that could hang in the Prado. Even by his standards of painterly cinema, the tableau in which Julieta dresses her bedridden mother and brings her outdoors is extraordinary: the carefully chosen tones of the wall, the clothes and the food on a table would have thrilled Velázquez. “In dresses, in colours, in wallpaper, there is a dramatic intention, even if it is not necessarily obvious to the viewer,” he says. “Colour is one of the best instruments to convey emotion.”

As a writer-director, he doesn’t consider the “look” of his films until he has finished the first draft of the script, and does not visualise characters when he is writing – though there have been exceptions when he was working with Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas and his long-time muse Penélope Cruz. With Julieta, he could see no role for any of his “family of actors” and so threw the casting net wider, dividing the old and young parts of the title role between Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte, both newcomers to his movies.

Linguistically, he is less adaptive. Hispanic directors such as Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón have taken on anglophone projects in Hollywood, but Almodóvar has refused numerous offers.

Directors are usually wary of revealing the successful films they might have made, but he does say that he was “very close” to doing Brokeback Mountain (it was eventually directed by Ang Lee). “They were very patient waiting for me,” he tells me. “But, in the end, I thought that my way of shooting wasn’t right for it. I’m accustomed to a freedom, an independence that I don’t think the production system of Hollywood would ever allow me.”

Yet he unexpectedly reveals an ambition to direct a Deadpool movie, following Tim Miller’s recent blockbuster about a superhero with healing powers. “I’d love to do that, but the script would have to be by Quentin Tarantino, who would be prefect for this movie. I’d like to co-direct that script with him. That would be a real possibility, if he wanted to do it.”

Even the big franchises are reaching out to unexpected directors – Sam Mendes for Bond, Paul Greengrass for the Bourne movies – so would Almodóvar take a call from the producers of either?
“These sorts of films, they are really in the hands of second-, third- and fourth-unit directors and post-production – but in my films, everything you see, I have had contact with,” he says. “Many of the elements in the film are actually mine: I buy things and then use them in a movie, or bring them to the set from my own home. And I couldn’t give up that control.” 

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 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser