Everything you probably never wanted to know and wouldn’t dream of asking about sexual fetishes is answered anyway in “The Conspirators of Pleasure.” Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, whose “Alice” and “Faust” won a considerable international following, takes something of a backward step with this bizarre fusion of surreal comedy, grotesquerie and psychosexual fantasy. Mainly live-action third feature could enjoy some marginal travel on the strength of the director’s name, but looks unlikely to muster the audiences of its predecessors.
Acknowledging an inspirational debt to such figures as Sigmund Freud, Luis Bunuel, Max Ernst and the Marquis de Sade, Svankmajer has created a wordless tale of six characters in search of solitary thrills. They each pursue their chosen pleasures with purposeful diligence.
Preparations for the elaborate sexual antics begin when mild-mannered Mr. Pivoine (Petr Meissel) receives a letter from the postmistress (Barbora Hrzanova) which simply states, “Sunday.” Working to meet that deadline, he constructs a papier-mache chicken’s head out of pornographic photos and an effigy of his blowzy landlady, Mrs. Loubalova (Gabriela Wilhemova). She, in turn , is at work on a straw dummy in Mr. Pivoine’s likeness.
The postmistress kneads a vast supply of tiny bread balls; the newspaper vendor (Jiri Labus) rigs a multi-armed mechanical contraption in front of his television; the police commissioner (Pavel Novy) constructs various textured devices out of latex fingers, nails, fur tails and brushes; his TV news anchor wife (Ana Veltinska) purchases two fat carp, which she keeps in a metal tub.
Sunday comes and the fun starts. The anchorwoman reads the evening news while the two fish take her to sexual heaven by sucking on her toes, the newspaper man gets his kicks watching her on TV while the automatic hands do the rest, the postmistress achieves liftoff sucking the bread balls up her nose through straws or stuffing them into her ears through funnels, and the cop treats himself to the entire gamut of tactile sensations.
Svankmajer’s trademark puppet animation is first seen some 50 minutes into the film, when the respective models of Mr. Pivoine and Mrs. Loubalova come to life. While the latter takes a whip to her tenant’s likeness, he ties the facsimile of his landlady to a chair while he flaps around in the chicken garb before crushing the dummy’s head with a rock. Reality intrudes on fantasy when the real Mrs. Loubalova is found dead and the police commissioner is summoned.
Originally planned in 1970 as a short feature that never went ahead, the idea was resuscitated by Svankmajer in 1995. Again, the project was conceived as a 12 -minute short, and only during shooting did the expansion to feature length take place. This arguably was a mistake, since the film’s dark humor may have better sustained a brief running time. At close to 90 minutes, its picture of isolation , bitterness, society’s moral degradation and lack of communication becomes an onerous, often unpleasant grind.
Admirers of Svankmajer’s work will likely feel short-changed by the fleeting use of animation here, but the animator’s hand is at work in the film’s impressive cartoonish soundtrack. In the absence of any dialogue, it combines tumultuous bursts of opera and symphonic music with everyday noises heightened to unnatural extremes.