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“Lunacy,” “Apartment Zero”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: “Lunacy,” Zeitgeist Films, 2006]

It could be said that movies get closest to being fabulous art not when they are at their most self-consciously “artsy,” but when they reflect an obsessive visionary’s perspective and personality as purely and expressively as a painting or a poem. If this is so, then Jan Svankmajer’s films belong on the highest shelf, because it’s quite possible that no moviemaker’s oeuvre is as uncompromised and as hermetically sealed as his. When you watch, you’re uneasily shaking hands with the man’s unexamined, fecund imaginative power source, with no intermediaries present. Famously a die-hard Surrealist who still “belongs” to recalcitrant Surrealist federation in the Czech Republic, Svankmajer has been exploring the anxiety of everyday objects for over 40 years, and in a vast variety of forms (including poetry, sculpture, painting, ceramics, collages and cabineted creations fashioned largely from taxidermied animals). Of course he is predominantly a stop-motion animator, inheriting the Czech puppet tradition and forcing it down the gullet of his own noxious id. His filmography is basically one long smash-up of subconscious fears, cultural recyclings, socio-sexual commentary, food used in ways it shouldn’t be, things that shouldn’t be food but are, and a crystalline faith in the desire of objects.

His new feature, “Lunacy”, is quintessential Svankmajer — not quite the textual acrobatics of “Alice” (1988) or “Faust” (1994), but, as the title suggests, closer to the Freudian craziness of his many shorts and “Conspirators of Pleasure” (1996). The “story” is an almost abstracted play on nightmare logic — our hero Jean (Pavel Liska) has reoccurring dreams about being mugged in his sleep by asylum attendants, a situation that proves sympathetic to a cackling maniac called, simply, the Marquis (Jan Triska), who has more than a whiff of Sade about him, and who dresses 18th-century style and lives in a castle performing outrageous black masses. Needless to say, Jean’s singular nightmare returns again and again, the Marquis’s sanity is hardly to be trusted, and a climactic visit to a Charenton-style nuthouse leads us to question if there’s any significant difference between the patients and the staff.

Throughout, Svankmajer interpolates his narrative with parallel visions of rogue flesh on the animated march — literally, perambulating cow tongues (a motif he first explored in 1969’s “A Quiet Week in the House”), eyeballs, moist calves’ brains, self-slicing steaks and bleached bones, all roaming over the film’s interior landscapes like escaped lab mice. (In one appalling sequence, chickens pecking at self-grinding beef lay eggs that hatch more meat, which jump into the grinder…) Svankmajer’s political thrust here is too wacky to parse — the Reign of Terror is explicitly evoked, but who exactly the aristocrats, the revolutionaries and the madmen are is impossible to figure. Perhaps this is how Sade saw it from behind his asylum walls: an anarchic exchange of one organizational derangement for another. Who knows — it’s Svankmajer’s little universe to command. We’re just tourists.

A far more reasonable take on insanity, Martin Donovan’s “Apartment Zero” (1988) made one of biggest indie splashes of the late ’80s, co-opting primal Hitchcockian ingredients and going for broke. Set, evocatively, in Buenos Aires, the movie tracks the unsettled but budding friendship-cum-codependency between two immigrant roommates — a boisterous, hedonistic, semi-educated American (Hart Bochner) and a socially inept, nervous British movie geek (Colin Firth). A serial killer is meanwhile terrorizing the city, and suspicions fly just as social virtues are exchanged and each man begins to leech off the other. Naturally, an imbalance is reached, personalities imperfectly swap (kinda), and blood spills. The actors have a revving ball, while their characters introduce a pre-Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon moviehead parlor game, which my wife and I long ago dubbed the “Apartment Zero” Game. Simply, one person names three actors from a film, the other must name the film. Firth’s neurotic dweeb beats out Bochner’s rangy hotshot every time, but the game quickly established an extra-cinematic life all its own.

“Lunacy” (Zeitgeist) and “Apartment Zero” (Anchor Bay) will be available on DVD on February 20.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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