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Unlike the director’s ALICE or FAUST – which were bizarre in design but generally faithful adaptations of classic tales – Švankmajer here combines the writings of the Marquis de Sade and two Poe stories (“Premature Burial” and “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether”) to produce his own unique plot. The resulting script is the best that Švankmajer has written: even if we’re familiar with the original tales, we’re always kept off guard in the way they are incorporated into the story – the twists and turns are always unexpected and layered with delicious satire, irony, and black comedy. The plot recalls the various stories of de Sade, such as Peter Brook’s MARAT/SADE or Philip Kaufman’s QUILLS, and the tone recalls an endless number of Poe adaptations, but Švankmajer’s script and direction are consistently surprising. Along with his always exceptional imagery, his story takes us somewhere new and fascinating, and has a lot to say along the way.After a brief introduction during which the director labels the films as ‘a work of horror – with all the degeneracy that the genre implies’, we are taken into a film that few would classify as horror, though none would argue over the degeneracy. Jean Berlot (Pavel Liška) finds himself experiencing nightmares after the death of his mother – nightmares of men coming for him with a straightjacket and taking him away. You see, his mother died in a mental institution (‘at Charenton’, he says, in a nod to de Sade) – and Berlot fears a similar fate. Despite the film (seemingly) being set in present day, the Marquis de Sade (Jan Tříska) shows up, witnesses the physical representation of Berlot’s nightmares, and tells him he thinks he can cure him. I won’t spoil the fun, but after this we are taken to the Marquis’ manor, then to a mental institution where the inmates seem to have taken over the asylum. ‘To cure yourself of your fears, you must experience them’, the Marquis tells Berlot – and thus the story sets into motion, complete with a mad doctor, a beautiful girl, mysterious surgical treatments, a wonderfully ironic scene involving tarred and feathered men taken quite cerebrally from Poe, and yes, all the degeneracy that one could expect from a film that mixes Jan Švankmajer, the Marquis de Sade, and Edgar Allen Poe.

imdb user rating: 7.1/10
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