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14 June 2011updated 14 Sep 2021 3:49pm

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

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

By Ryan Gilbey

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.

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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.