Feed Your Head, Pt. 2: Conspirators of Pleasure
…which brings us to Conspirators of Pleasure, Jan Švankmajer’s 1996 feature, a movie so bizarre it makes Food look like Oscar bait. Once again, Švankmajer utilizes both live action and stop-motion filmmaking to explore the parameters of human functionality and control, then stretches and prods those parameters until they break. The function at the forefront of Conspirators of Pleasure is sex, though to be fair, the closest thing to traditional sex occurs when a newsagent receives a hand-job from a robot while smooching his television set (to each their own, and long live the new flesh, I suppose).
The film is replete with these derivative intimacies. A police detective constructs elaborate, latex and fur rollers to satisfy his tactile fetish. A postmistress inhales tiny balls of bread through her nostrils, and funnels the rest directly into her ears. Each climactic act is incredibly convoluted, requiring days of meticulous preparation by the fetishists, as if their attention for detail, and control over variables, somehow compensates for their terrible solitude. This juxtaposition of employing sexual agency, defining sexual roles (the closet is a continual motif, the coming out of which is obviously a reference to sexual identification), and giving in to outlandish compulsion (bread snorting, really?) elevates Conspirators of Pleasure to part of a much larger discourse on human needs. What are we looking for in our sexual outlets, control or release? Is Švankmajer implying that sexual fulfillment, with its alienating fringes and fetishes, and emotional connection are mutually exclusive?
The film’s depiction of fetishism as a closed loop of objectifying obsessions, never leading, or possibly never intending to lead, toward a human paramour, is visualized by the repeated use of close-ups. Švankmajer and collaborating cinematographer Miloslav Spála capture the opening of a letter, or the turning up of a volume knob with all the scrupulous focus of the film’s fixated protagonists. The policeman uses a razor to sever a bit of fur from a woman’s fox scarf, and once the cut is made Spála’s camera lingers for just a moment on the face of the dead animal, its glassy eyes indicative of the loss that occurs as living beings are broken down, part by part, into manageable objects. The newsagent’s sex-bot seems to be a simulacrum of a female newscaster about whom he fantasizes while watching television. However, the newsagent’s manipulation of his television’s zoom to tight close-ups of the woman’s lips suggest further partialism, taking in no account of the woman-as-being at all. Meanwhile, under the newscaster’s desk, a fish sucks her toes until she is brought to orgasm, her eyes shut, closing off the world.
The conspiracy referred to in the film’s title comes in the form of two neighbors, Pivonka and Loubalová, who surreptitiously coordinate their fetishes to be played out on the same day, though alone, in separate locations. Loubalová fantasizes she is a dominatrix, the most milquetoast of any of the movie’s payoffs, whipping and drowning a doll with Pivonka’s likeness. Pivonka, in turn, enacts an outlandish ritual involving a rooster-god costume, and a similar Loubalová doll, the head of which he decimates with large rock. These destructive and violent components of the neighbor’s fantasies imply a danger in such alienated, enclosed lifestyles, an implication that becomes paramount when Pivonka returns to his apartment complex to discover Loubalová’s head has been crushed by an actual boulder that has crashed inexplicably through her ceiling. Could she have been saved? Could he have saved her? Can Pivonka move on now that the head, symbolic of his own logical, controlling mind, has been destroyed? What now remains?
Conspirators of Pleasure ends on an ambiguous note. Pivonka enters his apartment and finds a bucket of fish on his living room chair, while his closet door slowly opens. Perhaps the fish are a gift from the postmistress, who, like a number of the film’s protagonists, has switched fetishes, and made the appropriate leap from bread-huffing to fish-play. True, the opening of the closet could be just another of Pivonka’s warped fantasies, but maybe, just maybe, the postmistress will appear in the flesh, an act that would mark the film’s first human sexual encounter. Who knows? It could be the beginning of a beautiful, consenting friendship.