“Alice thought to herself: Now you will see a film made for children, perhaps. But, I nearly forgot, you must close your eyes, otherwise you won’t see anything.”
‘Alice’, directed by Jan Švankmajer in 1988, is a Czech adaptation of Lewis Carrol’s novel. It loosely takes scenes from the book and uses Švankmajer’s characteristic stop-frame animation, along with a single human performance by Kristýna Kohoutová, to create a version of the story that captures the twisted and grotesque logic of the original. Švankmajer’s style is unsettling. Some creatures (the white rabbit and the march hare) are real stuffed animals, others are socks filled with sawdust with dentures, pin cushions, giant playing cards, all these are given weird characteristics. There is a strong sense of surrealism in Švankmajer’s work: like Dali he combines soft and hard objects to create an almost sexually charged atmosphere. For example, during the Mad Hatter’s tea party, the march hare periodically removes a pocket watch from the tea pot and smears it with butter, whilst the white rabbit also has a pocket watch that it removes from his sawdust insides and licks clean. Švankmajer fetishizes objects and images: the pocket watch, a pair of scissors, slabs of meat, the close up of Kohoutová’s mouth as she narrates the story. All this is shown without music, only with grating and eerie sound effects. It’s the kind of movie that skates around the edges of horror, the sets are all stained and grimy, wallpaper peels from the walls, the metal rusty, and the animals are moth eaten and old. It’s riddled with a decay that speaks of the ennui and stagnation of Czechoslovakia, and the whole of Eastern Europe, in the years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. For all this, Švankmajer still injects his creatures and their personalities with a sense of ridiculous humour. It’s strange, beautiful, terrifying and poignant but also surprisingly funny.
Would I recommend it? I love Švankmajer so yes. Watch with his version of ‘Faust’ (another adaptation that has been Švankmajer-ed) or perhaps a film like ‘Valerie and her Week of Wonders’, another Czech film that embraces unsettling fantasy in the face of the reality of Soviet rule.