Lunacy has been heavily described as a cross between Edgar Allen Poe and the Marquis De Sade, which is true enough on a literal level, but doesn't give director Jan Svankmajer nearly enough credit: First and foremost, it's a Jan Svankmajer film, recognizable from the moment a shirt starts crawling off a chair to open a bolted door of its own accord, while its owner begs it to stop. The stop-motion impresario behind films like Alice and Little Otik, Svankmajer has spent the past 40 years developing a distinctive visual style, and it's front and center in Lunacy, alongside Svankmajer's similarly familiar evocation of strangely playful dread.
Protagonist Pavel Liska opens the film caught up in a nightmare of being dragged off to an insane asylum; resisting, he wrecks his rented room, but creepy marquis Jan Triska pays for the damages and takes Liska under his wing. From the start, Triska's motives and his disturbing sense of humor make him suspect, but the weak-willed Liska lets himself be bulled and cozened into subservience, even after witnessing a scene of protracted, calculated blasphemy that would make Ken Russell blanch, and even after being forced to take part in a ceremony inspired by Poe. Ultimately, the pair walk into another Poe story, "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether," in which a lunatic asylum becomes progressively more disturbing with every new revelation. Meanwhile, in brief bumpers between scenes, animal hearts, tongues, eyes, brains, and muscles cavort grotesquely in comic little stop-action-animation adventures, as though to remind viewers that all the human antics on the screen amount to little more than dancing meat, briefly activated by the spark of life, but destined to collapse and rot.
Svankmajer himself appears at the beginning of Lunacy to decry the entire process as a degenerate, infantile work of horror, rather than a work of art, since "today, art is all but dead anyway." His grim explanation of the film's themes and intent comes in handy, particularly during its most stomach-churning excesses and its overlong second act, but he underestimates its artfulness. His nihilistic story isn't for everyone, but he skillfully manages its disturbing execution in ways no one else could, and he brings it across in a darkly comedic way that encourages simultaneous laughter, horror, and thought. If that isn't art, what is?