Conspirators of Pleasure (1996) is the first of Jan Svankmajer’s films to use live actors almost exclusively; there are only a few brief animated sequences. But as Svankmajer himself says in an interview, “I work with actors exactly as I work with inanimate objects… I use the camera to photograph them as inanimate objects.” Svankmajer’s actors, like his marionettes and his stop-motion animations, occupy a strange half-world in between life and death, vitality and impassivity, subjectivity and objectness. The characters in Conspirators of Pleasure all inhabit the realm of what Mario Perniola calls “the sex appeal of the inorganic.”
Conspirators of Pleasure doesn’t have much of a plot; rather, it documents the independent, yet intersecting, itineraries of six obsessed characters and what traditional psychology or psychoanalysis could only call their “perversions.” It is not for nothing that, in the final credits, Svankmajer acknowledges the inspiration of Sacher-Masoch, the Marquis de Sade, Sigmund Freud, Luis BuÃ±uel, Max Ernst, and Bohuslav Brouk (the latter was a Czech psychoanalyst with strong surrealist ties, about whom I know nothing — there’s an account of his life and work here, but I cannot read it, as I do not know Czech). Actually, one might well add Krafft-Ebbing to this list, as Svankmajer is much more concerned with symptomatology (the cataloguing and documenting of the minutiae of “perversion”) than with diagnosis (tracking the roots, and interpreting the meanings, of “perversion” as Freud does).
In any case, the film’s six protagonists are the following. A man makes an enormous papier-mache chicken’s head, and wings derived from five broken umbrellas sewn together, wearing them in order to perform a ritual in which he abuses and eventually destroys a life-sized mannequin representing his (female) next-door neighbor. The neighbor similarly performs a ritual in which she burns religious candles at a sort of altar, while she dresses in dominatrix gear, and whips and eventally destroys a mannequin representing the man next door. The postwoman who delivers their mail chews up bread and spits it out again to make a multitude of doughballs, which she stuffs in great numbers into her nostrils and ears, cutting off her senses and giving her a sort of meditative bliss. Then she delivers the doughballs to a woman newscaster, who uses them to feed some carp; these fish are kept in a pan of water at her feet, and trained to nibble her toes, which brings her to convulsive orgasm. The shopowner, from whom the first man buys the porno magazines that he uses for his papier-mache constructions, is himself obsessed with the newscaster; he constructs a complicated machine that strokes and caresses him while he watches (and videotapes) the newscaster on an enormous screen. The newscaster’s husband, meanwhile, constructs a variety of masochistic masturbation devices from fur from women’s coats, condoms, rolling pins, nails, and other such fetish objects. He turns out to be a cop, who, at the end of the film, is investigating the deaths of the two neighbors, whose mutual rituals of destruction against one another seem to have passed over from fantasy into actuality.
As this brief summary indicates, there are all sorts of links between the films’ six “conspirators.” But these links are all fortuitous ones. The two neighbors, united in mutual hatred, do not speak; neither do the cop husband and newscaster wife, whom at one point we see lying in bed together, not touching, until he gets up and goes to his workshop to tinker with his devices. Indeed, the absence of communication is emphasized by the fact that there is no dialogue whatsoever in the entire film. (There are lots of — often exaggeraded — ambient sound effects, and classical-music themes for each of the six main characters). Instead, we get — at most — knowing glances between them. The magazine vendor winks at the chicken-man, until the latter gets embarrassed and pays for his magazines, rushing out of the store without waiting to get his change. The newscaster wife weeps as she glances through the blinds at her cop husband’s workshop. The chicken man and the postwoman exchange looks as they accidentally bump into one another in the street.
Against these half-acknowledged looks, there are the furtive glances with which the conspirators check everything out around them, to make sure that nobody sees them indulging in their secret pleasures. For though these six characters are connected in various ways, to the extent that it seems that each of their perversions depends upon one of the others, or on other people more generally, nonetheless they are each alone. Their pleasures are all solitary and masturbatory. Even the newscaster, whose orgasm is (it seems — but this may only be a seeming) broadcast live on television for all the world to see, iis careful to hide her feet and the basin in which the carp are biting them. Each character, you might say, is like a Leibnizian monad, completely self-enclosed, without windows or doors, yet nevertheless in hidden, implicit communication with the entire universe. Svankmajer proposes a strange new sort of social bond, one that is irreducible either to Communist solidarity and communitarianism, or to capitalist atomism. There is no common interest, no togetherness; but also no competition of rationally calculating, autonomous individuals in the marketplace, and no Hobbesian war of all against all. Everything is irreducibly particular; but all these particularities are incomplete and uncontained, not to mention too compulsive and too partial to be recuperated as attributes of a “self.” We are faced, instead, with something like Agamben’s coming community, or Jean-Luc Nancy’s inoperative community, or Maurice Blanchot’s unavowable community — or better, to the common source of all these three, Georges Bataille’s “community of those who have no community.” The social bond is oblique and forever incomplete; it is embodied, not but public rituals and shows of empathy or solidarity, but precisely by the odd conjunction of private rituals, selfish passions, compulsions that can never be confessed, and that are characterized by shame and embarrassment as much as by orgasmic release.
Svankmajer’s formal strategy itself expresses these concerns. In one sense, the film is a deeply affective one: there are lots of close-ups, emphasizing the conspirators’ emotions. which range from furtive uneasiness to orgasmic release. But — contrary to the usual implications of cinematic syntax — these close-ups never lead to any sort of identification with the characters. This is partly because these characters’ practices are too singular, too compulsive, too intricately weird, in short too distant from common experience (or at least from any experiences that we are accustomed to avow in public, and see depicted on our screens) to allow for the usual sort of identification. It is also because, despite these close-ups, the characters do not really share their experiences with the camera — much of the time, they are masked as they perform their private rituals, or else they literally hide in the closet — diegetically away from any potentially prying eyes, and extra-diegetically away from the prying eye of the camera — at crucial moments in their process of self-gratification. And then, in addition, because Svankmajer tends so much to fragment space, and bodies, with closeups of hands and eyes and so on, as well as physical objects, that even these close-ups of emotional expressions in the face read more like exploded fragments than like points of concentration. This is one way in which Svankmajer indeed treats his actors in the same way as he does inanimate objects.
Throughout the film, there is an extreme emphasis upon construction and process: Svankmajer doesn’t just show us how his conspirators’ rituals of pleasure work, he also shows us — very materialistically — how the physical objects that enable these rituals are put together We really get to know the papier-mache chicken mask, the masochistic pleasure/pain brushes and rollers, circuit between bodily stimulator and video screen, and so on, because the film shows us in such careful detail how the materials for these instruments are obtained, broken down, repurposed, and put together in new combinations thanks to meticulous and lengthy handiwork (or, in the case of the postal worker, mouthwork). Finally, Conspirators of Pleasure is largely about machines: by which I mean, not industrial machines, but the conspirators’ ramshackle constructions. These are literally machines, but in the sense of the surrealist constructions of the first third of the twentieth century, or in the sense of Rube Goldberg machines, or in the sense defined by Deleuze and Guattari, for whom a machine is a concatenation of heterogeneous elements that interact precisely by virtue of their diversity, disconnectedness, and dysfunctionality. And the conspirators themselves are also parts or components of these machines that they have constructed, rather than fully active subjects who simply use the machines instrumentally. Their orgasms are functions of the machine, parts of its functioning, rather than autonomous ends for which the machines would be simple means. This is why they are Perniola’s “things that feel” rather than Kantian/existentialist moral subjects. Orgasms are not outpourings of the erotic body/soul, but convulsions inherent to the depths of inorganic matter.
In Svankmajer’s vision, the human cannot be separated from the machine, and inner desires cannot be separated from their physical instantiations. There is no “human spirit,” but only an intensive, affective materiality. And there are no wholes or unities, but only parts: units or components that are incomplete in themselves, always requiring conjunctions and collisions and ruptures with other parts, so that the combination of these parts is itself always incomplete, always an ongoing process without conclusion. Nothing is self-contained, “no man is an island”; yet there is also no communion, no higher community, no totality. Rather than pathologize the “perversions” that his camera so coolly tracks and records, Svankmajer suggests that there is no “normality,” no desire, no conjunction of bodies –whether organic or inorganic — that is not singular, contingent, fleeting, and disruptive: in a word, “perverse.”