When I first watched Jan Švankmajer’s Conspirators of Pleasure I didn’t even notice there was no dialogue. It so effectively overwhelms your senses, there isn’t much to be said anyway.
The film follows a group of individuals in Prague, each engrossed in a tedious process of creating the conditions for their erotic desire.
One man begins the process of creating an elaborate chicken costume. Another, engineers a machine with fake hands. A mailwoman uses her saliva to furtively mold bread balls in a stairwell. And that’s just the beginning.
Švankmajer knows that arousal (meaning in simple terms, heightened stimulation) comes from a combination of touch and imagination. When he was blacklisted as a filmmaker during Communist rule in Prague, he wrote a book about it, Touching and Imagining: An Introduction to Tactile Art.
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Švankmajer makes use of both touch and imagination to build context and storytelling around objects and characters without the support of dialogue.
In cinema we can technically only experience two senses, sound and sight. But Švankmajer uses extreme close-ups and heightened sound editing to bring a sense of tactility to objects…
A close up of glue spurting out a tube, the slick sound of it spreading on a feather. It’s almost bodily. For me, it’s even grotesque.
The slurping and sticky sound of the mailwoman forming her bread balls, the click of a carp’s gills on a wooden table. A rolling pin falling over in a shop and a nail polish brush sweeping across fake fingers.
These close up textures, quick cuts, and accompanying sounds call our attention to the object’s form, asking the viewer to see these everyday items as objects of expression and experience.
The imaginary aspect of desire is just as important to Švankmajer. A member of a surrealist art group himself, he has a preoccupation with dreams and accessing the unconscious.
Also a master of puppeteering and stop-motion, we don’t get any of that until the halfway mark, just as the characters are indulging in their private diversions.
A rolling pin runs across a man’s back on its own. The man in a chicken costume flies. A hay-filled body double of the same man is animated and cowers from a dominatrix as she whips him into submission.
These sequences show the ecstasy in carrying out their fantasy which must involve a level of the imaginary. Desire, the touch and the imagination are joined to create a literal symphony, each player getting their own song.
But Švankmajer doesn’t just shock the viewer with visuals and strange fetishes. What is most striking to me is how the web of conspirators are revealed to be in connection with one another.
What appear to be side characters, are then followed for their own screwball vignettes that layer on top of each other. Perhaps a greater point is being made about the average weirdness of all people.
One scene shows a conspirator browsing candles for whatever ritual she’s planning. She touches one. Not those. She finds a thicker style, holds it a moment, then places it in the basket. Then two more.
It’s a small glimpse into aesthetic and its connection to pleasure, not even sexual pleasure, in a film that is otherwise difficult to personally relate. We all know the feeling of preferring a slightly different piece of clothing or furniture over another. But where does that come from?
Since surrealism, for Švankmajer, is a philosophy about unblocking creative expression, I’m not sure there’s any set theme in the film. It’s an experimentation. While we may not get off on rolling nails and feathers across our body, Conspirators of Pleasure asks us to unblock our minds and find out why we are the way we are.