Disc Jockey: Jan Svankmajer’s ‘Alice’ will traumatize your children

Jan Svankmajer's "Alice" features creepy images like this. Credit: First Run Features
Jan Svankmajer’s “Alice” features creepy images like this.
Credit: First Run Features

First Run Features

Like snowflakes, no two films of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass” are the same. Each of the many adaptations picks what segments they think work best, then chucks the rest. (Only Tim Burton’s woebegone 2010 monstrosity, which is more a fanboy threequel mash-up, could be charged with disrespecting the source.) Even among these, the 1988 stab by Czech stop motion animation legend Jan Svankmajer, is unusual. It lacks the warmth, the glee of most other adaptations. But it heightens the weird and the menacing several times over.

Here, Alice (Kristyna Kohoutova) is a dour girl who lives not in an idyllic countryside but in the depressing confines of a vaguely Communist-era Eastern European locale. The rabbit is an ugly, taxidermically stuffed beast who escapes through a drawer. Alice follows him, finding herself in a series of drab rooms, where she meets stuffed creatures whose blood is sawdust, gnarly puppets, living animal skeletons and other things that will traumatize young children.

“Alice” was Svankmajer’s first feature length film, of only six, following decades of short work. Actually, that’s not true: From 1972 to 1980 he was forbidden by state authorities from working, having correctly noted the subversive nature of not-very-childlike shorts, such as 1968’s “The Flat,” a pessimistic parable about life in then-Czechoslovakia in which a man becomes imprisoned inside an apartment that runs by its own absurdist, spirit-crushing dream logic.

Svankmajer wasn’t all gloom, though. He has a playful streak, albeit one run by gallow’s humor. “Alice” retains the language of Carroll, with a little girl narrator who reads all the parts, complete with insert shots of her mouth speaking. His sticks to some, if not all, of the most-tackled bits, including her entrapment in a house, the Mad Tea-party and the business with the Red Queen, a scene populated by talking playing cards. The caterpillar is now a dirty sock with eyes and scary dentures.

Everything is fantastical but within extreme limitations. There is no money in Svankmajer’s nation, so even magical creatures in a fantasy world have to make due with what little is around them. It’s a wonderland done on the extreme cheap, and instead of stoking Alice’s imagination, with more absurdist, nonsensical adventures to come, it only makes her tough and brittle. For a girl like her in that place at that time, that will do her more good anyway.

Also out:

‘The Invisible Woman’ Ralph Fiennes’ fierce look at Charles Dickens’ relationship with his secret mistress got a bit lost in the winter rush, which is a shame because it features some terrific work, especially from Felicity Jones as his increasingly withdrawn gal pal. And Fiennes is a helluva director.

‘Breaking the Waves’ Lars Von Trier’s porno “Nymphomaniac” wound up being his (arguable) funniest, warmest work. So go back to a time when he was really tough, i.e., when he had a dim Irish woman (Emily Watson) who embarks on a sexcapade for her injured husband (Stellan Skarsgard).

‘Fill the Void’ One of last year’s most impressive debuts was by filmmaker Rama Burshtein, an Orthodox Israeli who offered a loving but critical glance inside her cloistered world.

‘Touch of Evil’ Orson Welles’ outstanding B-movie thriller, with Charlton Heston as a Mexican cop squaring off aginst Welles’ crooked sheriff, was gutted for original release, then reshaped twice, last in 1998. All three versions are on this release.


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