director Jan Švankmajer
Jan Švankmajer’s Alice (1988) is probably one of my favorite movies. The funny thing is that I hadn’t seen it in more than 15 years, I’m pretty sure. It is a film that I had been wanting to watch with the kids for a long time, but it had turned out that they had already seen it with their mother, for whom the film is also a favorite. Clara didn’t remember it, but Felix did. It was in this vague middleground that held it out of the queue for what turns out to be far too long.
If you are not familiar with Jan Švankmajer, this is certainly the place to start. It’s his first and best feature film, a loose yet spiritually-aligned version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s actually a fascinating counterpoint to the lush and lovely Disney version of the story that we had watched recently. Where Disney’s 1951 film is a Technicolor fantasia, Švankmajer’s is an eerie, strangely nightmarish world of pure oddity.
Švankmajer is a stop-motion animator and film-maker who uses puppets and found objects, like food, or other effluvia in his figures. In his Alice, the White Rabbit is a taxidermied rabbit with its teeth rather prominently poised. Bones and real, dead animals comprise much of the strange universe that Alice ventures into, starting from her real world room in which these objects exist around her. Recurring themes of drawers being pulled open (with their knobs always coming off), revealing a litany of various objects: safety pins, scissors, wood-shavings. It’s a dank, Old World dreamscape that Alice ventures round in.
Švankmajer also employs a rather unusual technique for his voice-over of the story. Alice speaks the words of the text, often cutting to a close-up of her mouth and she says them. It punctuates a rhythm throughout, sort of jarring, but relatively musical, through a film with little talking to speak of.
The contrast between this Alice and the Disney Alice in Wonderland, is that many of the same sequences occur, highlighting the films’ extreme difference in approach. In Švankmajer’s Alice, the caterpillar is a sock with eyeballs, in a room overrun with socks, tunneling like worms through a wooden floor. Švankmajer’s Alice is full of Freudian images, of dark surrealism and strangenesses that one could hardly conceive of on one’s own.
It’s Švankmajer’s masterpiece. He has many, many wonderful short films, and some other good or very good features like his Faust (1994) or Little Otik (2000). But this, the least literal, though most fantastical of Alices, is a film unlike any other.