“Tactile wooden spoons, pot lids, rolling pins and boards are alchemistic tools and our bodies are the crucible for the Magnum Opus of tactilism.”
– Jan Švankmajer (1)
Jan Švankmajer’s third feature film, Spiklenci slasti (Conspirators of Pleasure, 1996), a dialogue-free black comedy aspiring to create a synaesthetic experience for its audience, concerns the blithely interconnected quests of six Prague denizens for onanistic bliss in an elaborate autoerotic roundelay. It’s a most singular accomplishment, even by Švankmajer’s highly iconoclastic standards – possibly “the first erotic film in which there is no sexual intercourse” (2). Nonetheless, it is emblematic of the interrelationship of Švankmajer’s film and fine art practices, and of the long periods of gestation common to his feature films. The film’s origins harken back to 1970, in Švankmajer’s scripting of a short work, Bleděmodrovous (Pale Bluebeard), concerning sado-masochistic, transmutative relations between a pair of neighbours. Although the script was published in 1979 in a Surrealist anthology (3), Švankmajer didn’t commence filming until 1996.
This delay is partly attributable to Švankmajer’s retreat from filmmaking between 1973 and 1979 after the Communist regime and its de facto daily mouthpiece, Rudé právo, took a dim view of the satirical live-action augmentations made without approval to Leonardův deník (Leonardo’s Diary, 1972). Unacceptable demands of re-shoots were then placed upon the production of Švankmajer’s following short film, Otrantský zámek (The Castle of Otranto, 1973-9), so much so that, for several years, its completion was abandoned. Nevertheless, during this time Švankmajer was far from creatively idle: “That situation lasted for seven long years during which I occupied myself with an intensive study of touch in relation to imagination. I turned to a field of creativity that could be regarded as almost an extreme contradiction to the audiovisual film.” (4)
At the director’s behest, the Group of Czech-Slovak Surrealists, which Švankmajer and his wife Eva Švankmajerová had joined in 1970, embarked upon a long-running series of experiments. These experiments set out to determine whether the sense of touch couldn’t be liberated from mere utilitarianism and instead be found capable of “stimulating associative thinking” (5), in the interpretation and creation of art. To examine whether touch could be elevated from its long subordinate role to the other senses, and to vision, in particular. After all, as Švankmajer wrote in Touching and Imagining, “The physical sense registers and perceives the world (perceives its stimuli) with the entire surface of the body, with all its cavities, internal organs and its mucous membranes” (6). Unfortunately, as Švankmajer also argues,
Touch has become significantly dependent on Vision. It established a kind of perceptual unity that could be regarded as a false synaesthesia. False, because the real synaesthesia, as we understand it for example from double perception Vision-Hearing, is based on an analogical bond between visual and aural perceptions, while the “false” one is a mere confirmation caused by distrust of the differentiation capacity of Touch….
However, if there does exist one aspect of human perception where Touch still has a position dominant over all other senses, it is in the field of eroticism. (7)
In 1996, on one sleepless night, a week or so into the shoot of “Pale Bluebeard”, another four characters and stories suddenly occurred to Švankmajer, who startled producer Jaromír Kallista the morning after with the alarming news that what they were now making was no longer a short but a feature (8). The film would now have multiple stories interwoven throughout. What would appear, at first, to be several discrete but intercut shaggy dog stories would instead slowly be revealed to form a unified, interlocking whole. Whether or not Kallista was consoled by the promise of the film being dialogue-free and largely improvisatory, per the mere 16 pages of script that Švankmajer had generated through his lucubration: Conspirators of Pleasure was born.
“Pale Bluebeard”’s Mr. Pivoňka (Petr Meissel) and Mrs. Loubalová (Gabriela Wilhelmová) live opposite one another in a nondescript Prague apartment, each looking to make good on sexual fantasies about submitting the other to grievous bodily harm. To this end, both enact elaborate collection and creation rituals through which they prepare effigies of one another and costumes for themselves. The unprepossessing Pivoňka’s costume is especially ornate, with bat wings formed from umbrellas surmounted by a papier-mâché chicken head covered in gloopy cuttings from porn magazines. The middle-aged Loubalová’s costume adopts some of the familiar trappings of the dominatrix. But first, they must receive their cue.
One Thursday, a postwoman (Barbora Hrzánová) – almost as if charged with delivering a silent era Buñuelian intertitle – hands Pivoňka an envelope on his doorstep; in it, a letter in the style of a cut-out ransom note, bears only two words: “on Sunday”.
This will not be the full extent of this character’s role in the conspiracy. The postwoman takes pause on her delivery route to clandestinely dismantle loaves of bread, producing countless tiny bread balls in order to later, ecstatically, fill her nasal and aural cavities with them in the privacy of her own home. She then delivers them, pre-loved, to another in the circle, such that their needs too might be fulfilled. Notably, this very act of cereal self-abuse had been described previously in “Like the Touch of a Dead Trout”, a “tactile poem – scenario” of Švankmajer’s from 1978 (9), itself likely drawn from the 1930s autoeroticism case studies of Czech psychoanalyst Bohuslav Brouk, who is also cited in Touching and Imagining (10).
In fact, the Surrealists’ many and varied tactile experiments and productions, including interpretive games, surveys, confessionals, the production of tactile portraits and even the writing of scripts for plays with tactile cards dispensed to the audience with instructions (11), analogous to John Waters’ scratch-and-sniff Odorama cards handed out at screenings of Polyester (1981), informed all of the erotic peccadilloes granted to Conspirators of Pleasure’s six sensation-seekers.
This drawing together of inspiration extended to a comical treatise Švankmajer wrote in 1975 – with a very droll veneer of seriousness – called “The Future Belongs to Masturbation Machines” (12), extolling such fantastic apparatuses’ potential to bring about “the democritisation of eroticism” (13). And thus, back-of-shop, the newsagent (Jiří Lábus) who sells Pivoňka his porno mags is constructing an intricate animatronic contraption to allow him to bring into extreme close-up, and himself into intimate contact with, the image of a glamorous newsreader. Fusing touch and (tele)vision a la Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983), through his digital manipulation of two joysticks, he is simultaneously groped all over by multiple mechanical hands clad in lacy white gloves or sporting bright red nail polish.
The newsreader (played by an actual TV newsreader, Anna Wetlinská ), for her part, is miserable, stuck in a sexless marriage because her police inspector husband (Pavel Nový) ignores her in favour of attending to his own secretive autoerotic desires. He synthesises a variety of common household implements, in the time-honoured Surrealist tradition, into tools of erotic self-pleasuring: for example, rolling pins covered in tacks, brushes, nails and fur, along with other multi-textured props that Švankmajer had created several years earlier as tactile artworks. However, the inspector’s wife, not to be outdone, eventually discovers an autoerotic panacea for her own loneliness – she comes to find the tactile qualities of large, slippery, mouthy carp swimming in a tub very much to her liking.
And thus are all the conspirators entwined in a möbius strip-like feedback loop of transmutative desire, perhaps destined ever after to take turns in playing each other’s parts. How self-aware any of them are as to their roles in this “conspiracy”, let alone to their destinies, is impossible to determine.
Perverse desires apart, each of the conspirators is marked by one other attribute. Sound has always played a major part in Švankmajer’s films, and in Conspirators of Pleasure each of the protagonists has his or her own theme, often in jolly counterpoint with the furtiveness of their endeavours. This incongruity attains hilarious proportions in the ecstatic bursts of Mario Lanza’s “Musetta! Testa adorata” from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s La Bohème (15). This music accompanies the inspector’s every contemplation of the mundane materials he seeks for his self-pleasuring.
The rest of the film’s sound is more typically Švankmajer-esque; exaggeratedly loud sound effects accompany almost everything, from the slurpy, close-up emergence of glue from a tube or the lubrication of mechanical hands, to the extreme close-up combing of scalp hair – the better that sound too should synaesthetically communicate something of the materiality of objects depicted onscreen, even if often to repulsive effect. A kind of tactile onomatopoeia, you might say.
Less typically, Conspirators of Pleasure contains only a small amount of animation. Švankmajer saves this medium for several remarkable late sequences as his fetishists finally approach their autoerotic apotheoses. This is particularly true of Pivoňka and Loubalová, whose objects of sadistic attention – each other in effigy – are, for a time, subjectively brought to life in stop-motion and register and communicate great pain and suffering as they are humiliated and either beaten or outright annihilated.
While we’ve considered tactile perception as experienced by the characters within the film, and as experienced by those viewing it, we should lastly pause to consider the film’s own makers’ experience of it during its production. Švankmajer’s investigation into tactile art has long extended to the creation of gestural artworks, artworks which should resonate with emotion in correspondence to that which impelled the very gestures that produced them. As Švankmajer argues, “a strong emotion leaves an indelible imprint on the objects touched” (16).
One might pause then to consider the “tactile frustration” (17), “a kind of constant coitus interruptus”, as evocatively put by Švankmajer (18), to describe the stop-start release of energy intrinsic to animating Conspirators of Pleasure’s tactile objects and bodies, whether life-sized human effigies, hybridised kitchen tools, balls of bread, many-limbed masturbation machines or actual human beings. From the completion of The Castle of Otranto in 1979 Švankmajer has sought to transmit raw emotion onto his animated objects and audiences. Consider the aggression palpably wrought upon animated clay forms to such devastating effect in Zánik domu Usherů (The Fall of the House of Usher, 1980) and, famously and spectacularly, in Možnosti dialogu (Dimensions of Dialogue, 1982).
But whether the protracted, piecemeal acts of stop-motion that animated the pained Pivoňka and Loubalová effigies, in particular – designed for their very destruction by Eva Švankmajerová and so disturbing, even painful, to view – were pleasurable, painful, or both for Švankmajer and animators Bedřich Glaser and Martin Kublák, we might only surmise. Nonetheless, while Švankmajer wrote that to turn to a study of touch in relation to the imagination was contrary to pursuing the production of cinema, I rather think that Conspirators of Pleasure proved the validity of such an investigation and relationship.
1. Jan Švankmajer, Touching and Imagining: An Introduction to Tactile Art, ed. Cathryn Vasseleu, trans. Stanley Dalby, I. B.Tauris, London and New York, 2014, p. 28. Originally published in 1983 as Hmat a Imaginace in a samizdat edition of 5 copies. Each edition of Hmat a Imaginace bore a tactile cover “[f]eaturing rabbit fur along the spine and a hand shape cut out of sandpaper on the front”. See Cathryn Vasseleu, “Svankmajer’s Tales in Tactility”, The I. B. Tauris Blog 31 March 2014: http://theibtaurisblog.com/2014/03/31/tales-in-tactility/.
2. As declared by Švankmajer at the film’s premiere in Prague in 1996. See František Dryje and Bertrand Schmitt (eds.), Jan Švankmajer: Dimensions of Dialogue/Between Film and Fine Art, Arbor Vitae, Řevnice, 2012, p. 447.
3. The anthology, Otevřená hra (Open Game), was edited by Švankmajer, with a samizdat print run of 100 copies. Jan Uhde, “Jan Švankmajer: The Prodigious Animator from Prague”, Kinema Spring 1994: http://www.kinema.uwaterloo.ca/article.php?id=363.
4. Švankmajer, n. pag. Taken from his introduction to the Anglophone edition of the book.
5. Švankmajer, p. xvi.
6. Švankmajer, p. 28.
7. Švankmajer, p. 79.
8. Peter Hames, “Interview with Jan Švankmajer”, The Cinema of Jan Švankmajer: Dark Alchemy, 2nd ed., ed. Hames, Wallflower Press, London, 2008, p. 128.
9. Švankmajer, p. 154.
10. Švankmajer, endnote 4, p. 174. Brouk, notably, is one of six people credited for their “professional expertise” as the closing credits roll. Tellingly, the others are Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the Marquis de Sade, Sigmund Freud, Luis Buñuel and Max Ernst.
11. “In the Pocket”, a “tactile play in one act”, 1982, in Švankmajer, pp. 160-4.
12. This was published in the French anthology La Civilisation surréaliste, ed. Vincent Bounoure, Payot, Paris, 1976.
13. František Dryje, “Appendix One: Conspirators of Pleasure or Švankmajer’s Phantom of Liberty”, The Cinema of Jan Švankmajer: Dark Alchemy, p. 188.
14. Wetlinská undertook the role after encouragement from her psychoanalyst, Jiří Kocourek, a former member of the board of the Group of Czech-Slovak Surrealists’ journal, Analagon. Bertrand Schmitt, “Conspirators of Pleasure – A Waltz of Imaginary Perversions”, Jan Švankmajer: Dimensions of Dialogue/Between Film and Fine Art, p. 351.
15. Not to be confused with its better-known contemporary, La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini.
16. Švankmajer, p. 149.
17. Švankmajer, p. 169.
18. Švankmajer, p. 169.
Spiklenci slasti/Conspirators of Pleasure (1996 Czech Republic/Switzerland/UK 85 mins)
Prod Co: Athanor/Cominici/Delfilm Prod: Jaromír Kallista Dir, Scr: Jan Švankmajer Phot: Miloslav Špála Ed: Marie Zemanová Art Dir: Eva Švankmajerová, Jan Švankmajer Anim: Bedřich Glaser, Martin Kublák Sound: Ivo Špalj, François Musy
Cast: Petr Meissel, Gabriela Wilhelmová, Barbora Hrzánová, Jiří Lábus, Pavel Nový, Anna Wetlinská