Jan Švanmajer’s ‘Alice’ Confounds Expectations and Excites the Imagination

Cinema has seen more than a dozen adaptations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (and will no doubt see dozens more) but few are worthy of comparison with Jan Švankmajer’s surreal 1988 effort. It combines live action, stop motion animation and puppetry into a remarkable movie that refuses to overplay the charm of its source material and refuses to downplay its unsettling strangeness.

Alice is played by young actress Kristýna Kohoutová, who is (an early and incredibly brief appearance by a girl playing her older sister aside) the only human in the film. Throughout, she interacts (or, rather, appears to interact) with wooden puppets, stuffed dead animals, two-dimensional cut outs, and creatures composed in part of animal bones.

The result is as alarming as it sounds. Although Alice is an adaptation of a classic children’s story, and although it carries only a Parental Guidance rating, it is a film likely to shock sensitive children and to unnerve even adults — and yet it is also charming and whimsical and silly. Švankmajer’s movie is as enchanting and unforgiving as a Brothers Grimm fairytale and, as such, it is an ideal adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.

Which is not to say it’s a predictable or direct adaptation; it’s faithful to the spirit and impact of the novel, which means it often matches it for originality and oddness. The Mad Hatter’s tea party, for example, is unmistakably a staging of one of the most famous scenes in children’s literature, but it’s also unmistakably a scene that could only appear in a Švankmajer film.

No other filmmaker would combine a traditional Czechoslovakian carved puppet with a young girl, a hideous stuffed toy riding a wheelchair-esque contraption and a reanimated rabbit; and few other filmmakers could make such strangeness so fascinating.

As most surrealist films are, Alice is most memorable for its individual scenes, and the tea party is perhaps the most memorable of all. It’s there that Švankmajer’s fetishitic attention to everyday objects is most pronounced, and his surrealism is at its most absurd. The March Hare’s repeated buttering of pocket watches is given an almost sexual attention, as if it were some esoteric and arousing act of indulgence, while the draining of tea from china cups down the open gizzard of the Mad Hatter is presented like some obscene bodily function.

Similarly intense attention is given to the mouths of many characters, and the film has an obvious oral fixation. Characters often eat odd substances (most frequently sawdust) and extend tongues to lick at objects, like lizards testing the air. Whenever the action needs narrating, or a character other than Alice talks, the film cuts to an extreme close up of Kohoutová’s mouth, which speaks the necessary words.

Consequently, as her character tells us what other characters tell her, Kohoutová’s is the only voice heard in the film. This pulls us, powerfully, into Alice’s world, heightening our uncertainty about the nature of the reality we are watching: it’s deliberately unclear if Alice’s wonderland is real or a dream.

Though this ‘is it all a dream?’ idea may make the film less attractive to those in search of unrestrainedly strange films (and such viewers will surely constitute a large portion of this DVD’s audience), it’s fitting for the work of one of cinema’s most inspired surrealists and an artist obsessed with the unconscious.

When combined with the lack of music and the odd and eerie sound effects, the use of just one voice throughout the film helps Alice to sound as strange as it looks — and that is an astonishing achievement. Visually and aurally, every element of the production is calculated to confound expectations and excite the imagination.

A similar level of intelligence and precision has been applied to the preparation of this DVD package. It is, as we now expect from the BFI, a wonderful release combining a pristine picture and exquisite sound with fascinating extras and insightful liner notes.

Besides the main film, the DVD features Percy Stow and Cecil M. Hepworth’s 1903 silent Alice in Wonderland and four other shorts inspired by the story: 1921’s Elise and the Brown Bunny; 1974’s Alice in Label Land; and the Quay Brothers’ Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married? (1992) and Stille Nacht IV: Can’t Go Wrong Without You (1993). Each is an excellent addition to the main film and, together, they expand and deepen the experience of watching it.

The accompanying booklet is equally interesting, combining two essays on Alice with a brief biography of Švankmajer and an illuminating, if very short, interview with him. There is only one true test of a DVD’s liner notes: if read before viewing the film, they should create the urgent desire to watch it and, if read after viewing the film, they should create the urgent desire to watch it again. In that test, these notes score full marks.

There will always be film fans who have no wish to watch surreal Czechoslovakian stop motion animation and — much as my affection for the film compels me to recommend it to all — this film cannot be recommended to them: it’s every bit as bizarre as they might imagine. If you have read this far into this review, however, you are unlikely to be among their number — and I can, therefore, unreservedly recommend that you add this marvelous movie to your collection.

RATING 9 / 10