Film Reviews:

Conspirators of Pleasure

(Jan Svankmeyer, Czech, 1996)

Everyone has their own secret sexual preferences, their own particular desires that they prefer to keep hidden from the outside world. In his new film Conspirators of Pleasure, Jan Svankmeyer ('The Genius of Prague') demonstrates the bizarre, obsessive lengths people will go to satisfy such secret lusts.

In modern day Prague, a balding, bearded man buys a 'girlie' magazine from a local newsagent. While poring over it at home, he is disturbed by a female postal worker delivering a letter. Inside, it contains a single piece of paper, upon which one word is written, in blackmail style 'cut and paste': 'Sunday'. The man immediately starts work, slicing up his porn magazine collection, creating a large, papier mache cockerel's head. Meanwhile, the newsagent closes his store, and locks himself in a back room, rapt in desire for a female news reader. Elsewhere, the post woman sits in a darkened stairwell, rolling lumps of bread into piles of tiny, precisely shaped balls. The news reader sits lonely in her bedroom, while her husband disappears into an outhouse. Inside, he is eagerly constructing something to aid the expression of his own fantasies. Finally, Sunday arrives, and the 'conspirators' indulge their individual pleasures, each one cut off from the others.

After the comparatively large scale of Svankmeyer's previous film, Faust, Conspirators of Pleasure sees the writer/director/animator returning to smaller budget, silent film making. The lack of speech is an advantage however, allowing the film to avoid the clumsy, Anglicised dubbing that marred Faust. Like Faust, Conspirators of Pleasure is a film that can only be judged once it is over. For much of its running time, the audience has little idea why the characters are constructing such strange environments around themselves. The resulting bafflement is by turns beguiling and irritating. The film's biggest misjudgement is that, once the 'conspirators' 'pleasures' are finally revealed, they are neither extreme enough, nor bizarre enough, to make up for the long wait. The film's opening titles are displayed over a series of pornographic engravings, with Svankmeyer's credit appearing over a picture of a winged donkey sodomising a man. After this, the opening scene of the man buying a pornographic magazine seems to promise that Conspirators of Pleasure intends to explore fully the darker side of sexuality. It does do so to an extent, but less forcefully than might have been hoped from such a startling opening.

Accustomed to being shocked and surprised by the sheer originality of Svankmeyer's vision, it is depressing to find that for the first time he makes use of an image that is already familiar. When the newsagent's desire for the news reader overwhelms him, he pushes his face against his TV, as her lips enlarge to fill the screen. While explicitly evoking Cronenberg's Videodrome, there is no feeling that Svankmeyer has stolen the idea, but simply arrived upon it separately. The inescapable conclusion is that, on the subject of television induced alienation, the Czech Republic is far behind the West. Consequently, this highly intelligent and thoughtful film cannot help but seem slightly old fashioned when compared with such films as: Videodrome; Serial Mom; Natural Born Killers; or even Almodovar's Kika. Conspirators of Pleasure is on stronger ground when arguing that everything is erotic, and electronics magazines can be just as pornographic as photos of naked women. All it takes is the human imagination to design the necessary perversion to include them. At the film's close, the bearded man returns to the newsagent. He finds that the large array of porno magazines have been replaced with radio related publications. Without noticing the difference, he buys a magazine, and his embarrassment at doing so is not any less acute than before. A wonderfully surreal moment, it would have been appreciated by Luis Bunuel, whose name appears amongst the end credits' list of dedications.

Conspirators Of Pleasure ultimately takes a bleak view of personal relationships, with its characters each trapped in their own private universes, never being able to interact with each other. In one effective scene, it seems for an instant as if contact has been made, but it is revealed that the two participants are both indulging in separate self gratification, not a mutual act of love. On the way out of the cinema, one woman commented , 'That was the strangest film I've ever seen.' A whole world of pleasures awaits her.

Adrian Horrocks