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Conspirators of Pleasure (Jan Svankmajer) 1997

    Jan Svankmajer’s Conspirators of Pleasure is so original that it is difficult to place in context with regards to other films. It looks like an either an extended version of the bedspring scene in Delicatessan or a very long Björk video. It utilizes the same sort of stop-motion animation seen in the films of the Brothers Quay or Wladyslaw Starewicz (The Tale of the Fox, The Mascot). Its subject matter, which surreally examines sexual repression and fetishism, feels positively Buñuelian. Svankmajer’s work doesn’t often feel derivative, however. His strong ability to tell a story visually (Conspirators requires absolutely no subtitles to watch despite the fact that it’s in Czech) and his nonchalant way of raising issues and lecturing to the audience about their foibles through exaggeration and bawdiness make this film feel like it’s been cast in the style of a newspaper’s political cartoon.    

    Conspirators follows about a half-dozen people as they elaborately and secretly plan out their fetishistic sex rituals. None of the sex acts are really erotic or plausible enough to make the audience feel the director is singling them out or expecting them to be titillated, but there is, for the audience, a real sense of identification with the alienation these characters’ desires cause. The participants are never shown discussing their needs (which are literally hidden “in the closet”), but there are some knowing glances between characters exchanged suggesting a mutual understanding. Like the hero of Before Night Falls their sexual deviancy is nearly a form of political rebellion, and unifies them in the face of their society’s oppression. The film is also smart enough to suggest sexual desire is malleable and fetishes aren’t as distinctly ours as we might think they are. That it’s able to convey so much about sexuality and perversity with a minimum amount of either nudity or erotic charge is impressive, though one might wish these acts, which are obviously hugely enjoyable for their perpetrators, might be more fun for us. They’re certainly funny and odd, but we’re always looking at them from an outsider’s perspective.   

    The implication seems to be that we’re all harboring shames about our sexuality is a little problematic. Obviously, the film means this in a Buñuelian sense, which would suggest that without religion and manners we’d all be engaging in a nonstop orgy, but even that seems too neatly conceptualized. The fact of the matter is that humans tend to process sexual desires differently, and Conspirators wants us to think that we’re not at all different simply because we all have sexual desires. Some of us opt to act on impulse, while others don’t, so the film probably would have been better if it had examined what differentiated those who do and don’t act. The end of the movie, which hints that it might go in that direction, is fascinating, but it merely introduces the concept, and drops it. Still, it’s a must-see, if only because of the wealth of imagination and the technical bravado. The film’s handmade look fits the material, since it’s about desires too personal to be mass-produced. Conspirators of Pleasure manages to stave off the repetitiousness that its specificity might have caused by keeping its running time under 90 minutes. Thankfully, the film’s more edifying moments are surrounded by a thoroughly enjoyable shell of quirky insanity. 

*** 1/2 

Jeremy Heilman