Taking over the asylum

This gruesome black comedy will definitely put you off your dinner

<strong>Lunacy (18)</strong> di

"How do you like your steak?" The question has to be asked of anyone thinking of seeing Lunacy. The bulk of Jan Svankmajer's latest picture may be set in an asylum, but a sizeable portion of its two-hour running time is given over to stop-motion close-ups of hunks of raw meat. Atop a table, three pieces of fillet do what looks, to my admittedly untrained eye, like a gavotte. Two rather better-trained eyes slug it out to see which can get home to the orbit of a cow's skull first. Schloop. Schlurp. Plip. Plop. But what's that? Over there! Some self-opening tin cans are disgorging themselves of a bevy of brains. Marching brains, too: those gruesome grey cells are heading straight for us!

Which is a way of saying that, whatever else it is, Lunacy is not a film for a first date. Not only are you unlikely to want to eat after viewing it - you won't be interested in any of the other somatic pleasures either. The week's other horror flick, Paradise Lost, has a lengthy scene in which a holidaying babe is given the most local of anaesthetics before losing her liver to the friendly neighbourhood organ harvester. Not the nicest way to spend your gap year, admittedly, but after Hannibal Lecter's exploits most of us will just sit back and lick our lips at the skill of the scalpel work.

No such sitting back while you're watching Lunacy, as Svankmajer's film, which borrows liberally from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Premature Burial" and "The Mad Psychiatrist", is designed to discomfort. By the time it's over you'll be thrashing around like a bear in a cage.

But then this is a film about cages, opening and closing with images from that most terrifying of traps - the bad dream. The dream in question takes place at a 19th-century French inn, in one of whose bedrooms Jean Berlot (Pavel Liska) wakes up screaming. The previous day, Jean has told a fellow guest, the Marquis (Jan Triska), how he buried his mother, who died in the asylum at Charenton. His big fear, he says, is that as he is so much like her, he'll end up there himself. Nonsense, says the Marquis. Come and rest up at my castle. At which point even those not already alarmed by the Marquis's ability to cackle loudly while keeping his mouth shut might start to worry. Frock coats and capes? Castles and forests? Hammer and horror, anyone?

Lunacy owes rather more to Michel Foucault than it does to Frankenstein, more to the Marquis de Sade than to Dracula. A lifelong surrealist, Svankmajer is obsessed with the idea of absolute freedom. That is why, before the movie proper, he pops up - literally, looming into the frame from its bottom edge like some monster from the deep - to tell us that we are about to watch a "philosophical horror film" and to remind us of the "ideological debate about asylums". Svankmajer, of course, believes that the real madhouse is our repressive society.

We could talk about this until the cows that provided Svankmajer with the meat for his animated interludes come home. My own view is that a society that repressed nothing wouldn't be a society. It would be a chaos - and one whose strictures would be not at all preferable to those we are at present deemed to suffer. But Lunacy's real problem is that the cinema, which thrives on thrust and velocity, is not the place for abstract debate. Svankmajer's own lecture might last only a couple of minutes, but too much of the rest of his picture is given over to tight shots of the Marquis's head as he drones on about depravity, degradation and Delacroix.

I can't say I enjoyed Lunacy's tangoing T-bones, but at least they are an affront to the gross-out clichés of contemporary slice'n'dice. Why do horrible things to bodies, the film asks, when bodies do such horrible things to themselves anyway? No amount of Foucauldian posturing can hide the fact that, in the end, we're all dead meat. I'll have mine rare.

Ryan Gilbey is away

Pick of the week

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (12A)
dir: Gore Verbinski
More swashbuckling adventure in the final instalment of the trilogy.

Water (12A)
dir: Deepa Mehta
Moving portrait of widows in 1930s India opens in the UK after months on the festival circuit.

Wild Tigers I Have Known (18)
dir: Cam Archer
Eccentric exploration of a young boy's attempts to accept his sexuality.