Saturday, 20 June 2009

Films to see before you die: Alice (1988)

I'm sure Lewis Carroll didn't envisage anything quite as disturbing and nightmarish as Jan Švankmajer's Alice when he wrote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1865. The dreamlike quality of the book has made it open to interpretation and over a dozen movie adaptations had been produced before Švankmajer's in 1988, the most famous of which was Disney's whimsical animated version in 1951.

Švankmajer is a Czech artist, born in 1934, whose work spans decades. He's best known for his surreal, stop-motion films, such as Darkness/Light/Darkness, Meat Love and Dimensions of Dialogue. His off-kilter aesthetic is darkly humorous, where plates of meat come to life and clay statues see with glass eyes. Švankmajer directly influenced artists such as Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam (who called Dimensions of Dialogue one of the ten best animated films of all time) and The Brothers Quay.

Švankmajer first tackled Carroll with his 1971 short film Jabberwocky (watch an excerpt here). Alice (or Něco z Alenky in the original Czech) is more inspired by Alice's Adventures in Wonderland than a straight retelling of the story, and includes many changes to the original and new sequences.

Alice is now a slightly grubby child, who narrates the movie in the third person. The story is told in a mixture of live action and stop motion, with Alice (played by Kristýna Kohoutová and dubbed by Camilla Power in the English version) often shrinking down to a stop motion doll for certain sequences.

The movie is full of nightmarish images: stuffed animals, like the White Rabbit, who leak sawdust, ominous skulls, a rat hammering wooden stakes into Alice's head, and jars full of nails. It's a quietly menacing and disconcerting film, like an acid trip gone horribly wrong. And yet there are so many visual puns and funny moments it never becomes overwrought or bleak.

Švankmajer's entire oeuvre is worth checking out, but if you only have a chance to see one, Alice is a great example of his unique talent.

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