Saturday, June 09, 2012

Inks Make Dolls

Who but Alice would chase a rabbit? Maybe a wolf. Looking at Jan Svankmajer's 1988 Alice (Něco z Alenky), one wonders what else Alice has in common with wolves. It's one of the best experiences I've ever had watching a movie, there are moments I almost wept in delight at the extraordinary combination of characterisation, imagery, and concept.

I'd heard that of all the adaptations of the books, this was the one that best captured the spirit of Lewis Carroll's original work, but I put off watching it because it wasn't available in its original Czech version until last year. I'm glad I waited because Kristyna Kohoutova's performance as Alice is one of the best child performances I've ever seen, and crucial because Alice is narrator in addition to protagonist. Narrator might not quite cover it, actually--Svankmajer frequently cuts to a closeup of her mouth for narration, and there's always a sort of needling quality in her tone, as though she's enjoying the shock she's imagining she's inspiring with her tale.

This is a pretty gruesome Alice--maybe not as much as American McGee's but this one makes more of an impression for its better constructed character. Instead of the trite story in McGee's take about childhood trauma, Neco z Alenky knows that kids are quite cruel enough already. The animals in the film are the skeletons and specimens one senses Alice is familiar with seeing in the attic where she plays, the most fascinating being the bug eyed, taxidermied white rabbit.

The movie's focus on the dreamlike qualities of the story reminded me of Jonathan Miller's 1966 adaptation, which also featured a story anchored in Alice's POV as dreamer. Miller's technique for showing this was a sullen Alice who typically addressed her lines to the screen, a device that was at times effective.

But I liked how Svankmajer's Alice seems more engaged with her environment. She's a violent little girl, but she's also clearly moved by the astounding wonder the attic detritus inspires in her, and in the worlds suggested to her by mundane shapes in life. I loved how instead of a rabbit hole she crawls into a desk drawer.

The books were also satires of how adults have organised the world, and there's not much of that in Svankmajer's film, but what it does do, it does magnificently. My only real complaint would be for the absence of the Cheshire Cat, though maybe he was represented by the cat skulls hatching from eggs.

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