“Close your eyes, otherwise you won’t see anything”
Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been an endless source of inspiration, but none of its adaptations can match the raw darkness of the surrealist director Jan Swankmayer in the 1988 fantasy film Alice (Czech: Něco z Alenky, meaning Something from Alice).
Abandoning any notions of Disney’s 1951 fairytale take on the story, the multitalented Czech filmmaker and animator brings “Wonderland” to life through a blend of stop-motion animation and live action with a primarily silent narrative, in which trivial objects are re-animated to blur the lines between reality and fantasy.
By the riverside, young Alice (Kristýna Kohoutová) is reprimanded for flipping through the pages of a book. Through a close-up of her closing eyes and lips, Alice invites the audience to join her, tumbling into a world that is otherwise unseen. Back at her house, Alice watches a taxidermic White Rabbit use a pair of scissors to break free of his confines. The girl chases after the rabbit through an arid field until she sees a desk identical to the one in her living room. Alice does not hesitate; she peers inside the drawer and is soon swallowed up whole, finding herself in a different world. Despite her best efforts, the White Rabbit flees and forces Alice to continue her frantic search through tiny doors, vanishing leaves, and magical ink and cookies.
Svankmajer’s Alice twists innocence into a new level of visual pandemonium, defying logic through eeriness and a ghastly atmosphere. The film is not only interesting in terms of its technical aspects, but rather its approach to childhood fantasy and the grim chaos of dreams, as seen through the surrealist looking glass.
The first thing to capture our attention is the lack of a soundtrack, except for the cracking, screeching, thumping noises added to various household objects. These are presented as having wondrous qualities beyond our conscious understanding. The general lack of background music redirects our attention to the film’s striking and uncanny visuals, comprised of reassembled animal skeletons, a White Rabbit feeding on sawdust, and a caterpillar sock with dentures.
The symbolism of decay and morbidity is prevalent and only accentuated by the Rabbit’s constant stress-induced wails as he checks the time on his tick-tocking watch. And yet, it’s Alice’s nightmarish struggle with her body morphing from a human to a doll, from someone small to something towering, that causes more palpable tension. That’s mostly due to her solemn face, which refuses to betray a hint of emotion during the entire shedding process.
The girl’s arbitrary choice of objects further accentuates the oddity of the sequences that occur in a dreaming mind. The camera shots are always framed in a way that allows segments of information to be teasingly bared. Meanwhile, Alice being both the protagonist and narrator of her story turns the childlike construction into an out-of-body experience. In one of his interviews, Švankmajer revealed that the epoch of the film closely reflects his country’s conditions back in the 1970s. Alice’s predetermined trial at the end of her psychedelic adventure is a further comment on the Czechoslovak political trials of the 1950s.
Alice’s initial advice warns that this is not a film appropriate for children. The main character is not interested in teaching, but learning, and the sharp cuts and acts of violence enhance the overall darkness Alice is plunged into. However, the ending is incredibly clever and sardonic, bending all rules and allowing fantasy to leak into reality.
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