“Tactile wooden spoons, pot lids, rolling pins and boards are alchemistic tools and our bodies are the crucible for the Magnum Opus of tactilism.”
‘Conspirators of Pleasure’, directed by Jan Švankmajer in 1996, is a darkly surreal comedy that focuses on the paraphilic fetishism of a group of suburban Czechs. It’s a movie with very little dialogue, each character-based story is driven by the actions of the protagonists and by the characteristically gungy and dislocated sound effects. Švankmajer’s traditional stop motion is used surprisingly sparingly, mostly as the dramatic climax of each episode, but when it is used it has that disconcerting combination of wit and horror. Švankmajer is an expert at bringing inanimate objects to life, and occasionally at turning animate objects (for example the human characters) into corpse-like models. The central story is of a man who fashions a chicken suit for himself out of feathers, umbrellas, chicken fat and blood and clay. He wears this suit in a run-down part of the city and dances in front of a stuffed mannequin. His dance turns into an attack as he tortures and finally ‘kills’ the dummy. Returning home, he discovers his sexual adventure has merged with his neighbours, a woman who takes another mannequin (this time stuffed with straw) to a church where she whips him. You get the idea. The movie is riddled with occult and religious symbolism: blood, bread, water, sacrifice, all these themes are seeded into the different fantasies that Švankmajer’s characters indulge in. As with his two previous feature films ‘Alice’ and ‘Faust’, it’s easy to see this as a horror because of the dour settings, the earthy textures and the fixation on body parts and death, but the extremes of the characters and the nature of their paraphilia tips this movie into black comedy. There is also a possible moral message that Švankmajer is reaching for here – it’s telling that all the characters are shown to be alone and shown to shun, or even be hostile towards other people. Švankmajer’s characters from Alice to the fetish-driven characters in ‘Conspirators of Pleasure’ are all lonely, with only creepy stuffed animals and mannequins for company.
Would I recommend it? With certain reservations, yes. If you’re a Švankmajer fan, then it’s a brilliant movie and watching it with ‘Alice’ would give a sense of his approach to literary adaptation juxtaposed against his depiction of the modern world. If you’re not a Švankmajer fan, then for God’s sake avoid.