Movie Review – Alice (1988)

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) has long been touted as the ideal children’s tale, but even as a kid I felt that there was something sinister about it. Perhaps Wonderland seemed like a fun and magical place to visit to other kids, but the maliciously grinning Cheshire Cat, oyster gobbling Walrus, decapitating queen, and rules which seemed to change at a whim were the brick and mortar of nightmare worlds to me. When I read the book as an adult, I still couldn’t see the story as anything but maddeningly nefarious.

In 1988 the surrealist Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer made his own interpretation of the tale, and the macabre puppets and disturbing imagery are for my money, despite its relative obscurity, the closest adaptation in spirit of Carroll’s whimsical story. It begins with the lines, in Alice’s voiceover, “Alice thought to herself… Alice thought to herself, ‘Now you will see a film… made for children… perhaps…’ But, I nearly forgot… you must… close your eyes… otherwise… you won’t see anything.”

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In a 2011 interview with Electric Sheep Magazine, Švankmajer said of his adaptation of Carroll’s book, which he called “one of the most important and amazing books produced by this civilization,” that

“So far all adaptations of Alice (including the latest by Tim Burton) present it as a fairy tale, but Carroll wrote it as a dream. And between a dream and a fairy tale there is a fundamental difference. While a fairy tale has got an educational aspect – it works with the moral of the lifted forefinger (good overcomes evil), dream, as an expression of our unconscious, uncompromisingly pursues the realisation of our most secret wishes without considering rational and moral inhibitions, because it is driven by the principle of pleasure. My Alice is a realised dream.”

As I began watching the film with my wife, I commented aloud that this was supposedly considered somewhat of a horror film. My wife looked with wide eyes and nodded, telling me – her desensitized husband – that yes, this movie was absolutely horrifying. Švankmajer’s Wonderland is populated with animated skeletal and taxidermic animals. The White Rabbit frees himself from a display case by removing the nails from his paws and feeds on sawdust to keep his stuffed carcass inflated. The stop-motion animation which brings these creatures to life is some of the finest I’ve seen.

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Alice’s (Kristýna Kohoutová) world is almost entirely indoors, surrounded by an impressive array of antiques. We see only two outdoor scenes, one of which is a fantasy and the other of which is barren of vegetation, and Wonderland is arranged with the understanding and interpretation of a young girl who lives her life almost completely within a single home, and a single room without windows at that. The animals we see are essentially dead, and we can presume that Alice has had very little experience with live ones. Except for the skeletons, everything in Wonderland is artificial. Of his approach to these aspects of the film, Švankmajer says,

“Animation is, so far, the only way of breathing life into inanimate things. Children’s games work with the same magic. This kind of magic is the point where childhood and animation intersect with each other… I like things that have passed through human hands. Things that have been touched. Such things are charged with emotions that are capable of revealing themselves under certain, extremely sensitive circumstances. I collect such objects, surround myself with them and in the end I cast such ‘fetishes’ in my films. That’s also the reason why I don’t like computer animation. Virtual reality doesn’t have a tactile dimension. Objects and figures created on a computer have no past.”

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Švankmajer also gives Alice an appropriate mean streak, dispelling notions of sweet, innocent little girls. There can also be read in this a slight political metaphor, especially in the trial scene. The director had, of course, recollections of the Slánský trial from 1952, which was an orchestrated show-trial designed to quell a discordant faction of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Taking cues from and buckling to pressure from the Soviet Union, Rudolf Slánský, the party’s General Secretary, was put on trial with others who were chosen to serve as warnings to their respective groups of what might happen for their potential disobedience. This political farce is reflected, albeit only slightly, in Alice’s trial before the king and queen. Of this, Švankmajer says,

“An absurd court hearing with Alice (‘off with her head,’ shouted the Queen) obviously recalls the political trials of the 50s. Of course Alice, compared with the accused from that time, doesn’t respect the official script. It was just a minor analogy, I didn’t shoot the film because of that. But each imaginative work has got within itself, from its very essence, a subversive charge, because it knocks down the notion of lived-through reality as the only one possible.”

Alice is an entirely unique film which has the capacity to awe and unnerve. It’s certainly not designed or recommended for mainstream audiences, but for those looking for a macabre interpretation on a beloved children’s classic that can surprise and unsettle a viewer, if not exactly frighten them, Alice is most highly recommended. Children’s viewing, this is not.

Grade: B

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