Another year, another ho-hum Lewis Carroll adaptation. Cutting to the chase, here’s a review of the best one.
With so many adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland neglecting the lurid insanity and unshackled insubordination of the criminal original and shoe-horning an incongruous, structured-encased fairy tale narrative onto a fundamentally structureless work, Jan Švankmajer’s 1988 Alice is a refreshingly fractured spell of indelible potency. With logic never driving the way – barely even riding shotgun most of the time – Švankmajer’s Alice is perhaps the only feature film adaptation of Carroll’s writing to weaponize the visual frame as a realm of gloriously disreputable possibility for expression, rather than as an excuse to rein in the bleeding entropy of Carroll’s original text. Structural integrity, by and large, is the albatross of any Alice film, and Švankmajer’s vision, teetering on stilts and just barely jumping over self-imposed chainsaws slashing at their bases, is downright volatile.
Treating Švankmajer’s Cronenberg-off-the-deep-end puppetcraft as both the clause and the comma to a partially live-action affair, Alice intimately, itchily instigates the tension between reality and dream via the ever-sketchy motility of everyday objects tentatively holding together their normative realities against the backdrop of their repurposed remains. Bones and rot retextured as mobile beings, the nature of the “object” as a mental category is tested and strained under the tensile strength of Švankmajer’s dysmorphic vision. This haptic dimension is largely Švankmajer’s contribution to the tale (which is here an atmosphere or a state of mind more than a story proper). Taking the realm of animation to a distressingly, disarmingly literal extent, Alice is a herky, jerky fugue in the tone of taxidermy. Representation is compacted as well as unwound with characters like the white rabbit, a literal rabbit corpse ghoulishly reenvisioned as a marker of discomfort and disharmony.
The tentative, provisional strings of reality are clipped and stressed in exclusively formal ways, excising any sort of conceptual, heady grandeur a la the “mindfuck” films self-propagating soon after this during the ‘90s and ‘00s. Instead, refracted reality is tested in a more from-the-gut, sensory realm as our eyes flutter between the physicality of the creations – their palpable tactility – and the gruesome, post-mortem nightmare realm dripping out of the ways their tactility has been rekindled in distinctly, viciously skewered ways. “Life” itself becomes a question-mark in a film that refrains from any pseudo-intellectual posturing and instead asks us not to rethink life, but to re-perceive it with our eyes and ears – a much more unstable task rooted in the primal senses and form of cinema rather than nagging nothings of content. The beauty of Švankmajer’s vision is actually that it rejects “vision”; it preempts ideas – in all their totemic ossification – with the more primordial power of perceptions and senses.
An incantation of cinematic chaos, this Alice is a conduit to a more unholy form of cinema. While most films practice a détente toward real distortion and disharmony, this film inserts genuine hostility. Grafted from the director’s infamous short films, this Alice scavenges the history of Carroll adaptations and subsumes these influences into a murk of discombobulated disquiet. While most Carroll films regurgitate sugar-plum visions of majesty and ever-so slightly off-kilter wonder – floating in a layer of palpable but not especially avant-garde mild hysteria – this version is not content to leave the material so undisturbed.
Admittedly, Švankmajer’s opening sentence remains the same, and he hews closely to the broad gestures of the tale, but the nasty particulars often deferred in most versions are placed front and center here. The alternately torpid and rambunctious movement of the stop-motion creations, refusing to lean on the graceful momentum of traditional fictional character momentum, is corroborated by mise-en-scene straight out of a nail-bucket and sound design that absconds with those nails away from the blackboard and toward your inner-organs. Morbid but not hateful of spiteful, Alice is an acme of cinema-as-Germanic-folklore. Rust abounds as if in the celluloid itself; check your eyes for tetanus.
Even then, the from-the-gut detachment of the picture – ramshackle but not florid or self-consciously grand about it – more closely catches a whiff of “disturbed mental disarray” than “fable”, as the story has traditionally been interpreted. The near-dialogue-free maelstrom of the piece, with sudden, violent interjections of the text invading a hollowed-out nightmare of visual imagery bereft of dialogue but replete with engorged noise, ably rejects any sort of moral structure we might find in a more talkative fairy tale. There’s no learning, no betterment. Švankmajer destroys the remnants of the saccharine dysplasia always vaguely stewing in even the most heretical of adaptations.
Grotesque though it is, what most impresses is Švankmajer’s arch, even clinical, minimalism, producing a gaunt, deep-set fantasia devoid of the whirlwind maximalism and ostentatious cotton-candy carnality of most cinematic fables. If most Alices are, however removed, gluttonous German Expressionism riffs, this is a sketched-down Bergman parable. Images chill like an icy scimitar not because of their overweening omnipresence, but because of the deliberate emptiness of the obliterated void around them. Rather than deploying a surfeit of fantastical innards to obscure the purity of each image, Švankmajer reimagines the dream-world as a laser-like emphasis on the object of focus at the expense of the blank rapture of a periphery.
Which fundamentally reorients the tale away from the relative composure of a fairy tale. Retracing the steps of a dream, one becomes wrapped in the almost primordial flutter of singular sights and sounds seemingly disconnected from complete, competitive spaces, and Švankmajer’s near-ascetic, solitary focus in each scene introduces us to this sort of dream world devoid of holistic rooms and representational geometry. Images exist in the forlorn singular, never accruing greater meaning or threatening to produce a sensible, full vision of space. We’re shooting from image to image, with the transitions and the locations the sort of quality-of-life improvements that dreams or nightmares, and Švankmajer’s film, just doesn’t have time for.
What we’re left with is a devil’s carnival, a cornucopia of skeletons and rotting flesh that doesn’t dance or glisten but instead lurks and halts in a hermetically-sealed moratorium of inescapable putrescence. Not only a vision of dream as no man’s land, but a case study in the way objects are reconfigured, recast, and burglarized of essential meaning in the cosmic cavern of the mind, this is not Švankmajer’s masterpiece on a second-for-second basis. But of all his feature-length films, this may be the one to most recapture the erupted terror of his time-capsule-worthy shorts. Most Alice adaptations are mischievous; this one is mortifying.