A delightful and humorous celebration of sexual fetishes, as practiced by solitary people trying to get beyond social repression to create pleasure; a rare live action offering from Czech animator Jan Svankmajer.
The brilliant Czech animator Jan Svankmajer makes films that explore the nether reaches of our minds and behavior, with a sensibility so odd that it’s unclassifiable. His 1996 film Conspirators of Pleasure is one of his forays into live action (although animation eventually plays a part). The theme is fetishism, but the treatment is anything but salacious.
We first follow the mysterious activities of a balding, reclusive man who, after buying some pornography, begins to use papier-mâché and chicken feathers to construct—what? It’s not clear at first, and in the meantime we follow the inexplicable actions of other people who happen to be in his orbit: a female letter carrier who rolls bread into little balls of dough, storing the balls in a small box; the porn shop owner who builds a contraption with mechanical hands while transfixed by the image of a woman news anchor on his TV; a police inspector who steals scraps of material from second-hand shops and the clothing of passersby in order to make a variety of implements in his tool shed. There are six characters in all, and as the film cuts back and forth between their weird private activities, it gradually dawns on us that they are each preparing for some sort of elaborate solitary sex ritual.
There are no words in the film—everything is performed in a solemn pantomime, with the dry humor left up to our own imagination. Eventually the character’s actions make a kind of sense, but the interior world that Svankmajer is portraying retains a quality of murky impenetrability. The director’s vision, I would maintain, is not misanthropic, but deeply respectful of the lengths humans will go to in order to create pleasure in an environment dedicated to repression and concealment. There is no communication or intimacy, and so our protagonists focus on the most mundane objects—nails, gloves, dolls, bits of fur, those chicken feathers—transforming them into little machines of sexual gratification. When the animation effects take over, the result is very, very funny, but never condescending. The essential isolation of these urban wanderers is touching, sad, heroic, and grotesque all at once.
Svankmajer remains, unfortunately, a well-kept secret. In any event, his hermetic themes and concentrated, deadpan style are apparently too heady for mass popular taste. But those who patiently attune themselves to his perspective will be richly rewarded. Conspirators of Pleasure is a feast for the mind.