Jan Švankmajer's "Alice" (1988) | First Run Features
Jan Švankmajer’s “Alice” (1988) | First Run Features
Four surrealists sit around a table, assembling a grotesque body, an Exquisite Corpse. They each draw a fragmented portion of a figure, fold the paper, and pass it, leaving the next artist to add onto the body with no knowledge of its previously drawn parts.

The results are disturbing in juxtaposition: a body stitched together with seeming chance, brought forward from the subconscious through automatism. The body—disassembled, displaced, then reassembled—now appears fantastic and provocative in its derangement. The randomness mutilates, drawing attention to the impermanence of the body’s integrity.  

Alice thought to herself

After the stuffed rabbit springs to life, Alice runs after it. “Please, sir!” she cries. She follows the rabbit into a desk drawer, an Escher-like portal to another plane. There, the creatures are assembled from taxidermy, skeletons, and household objects—disassembled, displaced, then reassembled into the surreal, vanitas world of Alice’s imagination.

Alice thought to herself

Jan Švankmajer’s 1988 film Alice, “inspired by” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, trades away the psychedelic color of previous adaptations for a tan and gray melange of household drudgery. Through a combination of live-action and stop-motion, this interpretation leans into the unsettling nature of assemblage. The setting seems nearly post-apocalyptic (an abandoned basement filled with forgotten items) and the inhabitants are more dead than alive (creatures assembled from bones and preserved skins). Vanitas symbols are everywhere: rotting food, skulls, and the ticking of a clock. The effect is disconcerting and ominous, but not entirely incongruous. As Alice explores the fearful experience of puberty through a surrealist realm, she learns that life is a double-edged sword, both animating our bodies and destroying them—a dualism which Alice escapes by taking control of her own body. 

Alice thought to herself

Now you will see a film

Made for children

Perhaps

At the start of her playtime, Alice watches in dread as the stuffed and mounted White Rabbit springs to life. He pries his nailed-down feet out of his display, accidentally cutting his abdomen in the process. Sawdust falls from the wound, creating a pile on the floor between his legs. Moments later, as he passes a mirror, more sawdust tumbles down. He pulls his pocket watch out of the hole in his belly, licking up the sawdust that covers it, as is his habit. “Oh dear, oh dear, I shall be late!” cries the White Rabbit. Moments later, Alice pricks her finger on the sharp edge of a compass. A shining drop of blood gathers on her fingertip. She regards it for a moment, and then, mirroring the White Rabbit, licks it off her finger. Jan Švankmajer's "Alice" (1988) | First Run FeaturesAs the White Rabbit runs to and fro, exclaiming “Oh dear, oh dear!,” the wound in his abdomen is never patched up. Even when he stitches together a cut in his hand, the gaping hole in his stomach remains open, leaving sawdust spilling between his legs. The White Rabbit periodically pulls his watch from that same wound—the ticking clock, covered in the sawdust blood, indicates both a monthly cycle as well as the morbid nature of passing time. The constant trickle of the sawdust is relentless, leaving a path on the floor for Alice to follow. The implied start of menstruation serves as the impetus to Alice’s journey through taboo territories.

It’s a childlike interpretation of menstruation, and in general, Alice’s experiences are an oversimplification of puberty, frightening in their absurdity. Alice’s body is in a constant state of inconvenience and utterly out of control. She is too short to reach the table, but too tall to fit through the door. She is so small that she is carried away in a pool of her own tears, and later so large that she gets stuck in the White Rabbit’s house. Alice is almost archetypically curious and resilient, but it’s these bodily changes that push her to her limit, eventually driving her to tears. Her one guide is the Rabbit. “Sir, please!” she cries, her curiosity overcoming her dismay at his sawdust-dripping gash. She sees in him danger but also her future, the solution not only to her boredom but also her confusion. And so she follows him, giving into his commands, imitating his movements—down to licking away a drop of blood.

Alice thought to herself

In Alice’s pursuit of the White Rabbit, she falls into a descending elevator. As she rides it down, she reaches out and takes a jar of preserves from a passing shelf. She eagerly dips her finger into the jar, emerging with a marmalade-like substance…and finds a thumbtack in the jam.

At an age when many young girls complicate their relationship with eating, Alice discovers danger in food. In her dream, food is an exaggeration. Alice’s eating choices have a direct effect on her body: drinking a bottle of ink causes her to grow, and nibbling on a tart causes her to shrink. The food also has a direct effect on her emotions. After meekly following the White Rabbit’s orders, Alice walks through his house. She takes a sip from a bottle of ink on his desk and then expands, growing to her original height. She’s trapped in the house, too big to escape. For the first time, she exhibits shame. Where she’s earnestly followed the Rabbit up until this point, now she attempts to hide, shutting him out of his house, lashing out by attacking him. Her consumption and her body are a humiliation.Food becomes toxic, much like the thumbtack in the jam. Stuck in the White Rabbit’s house and getting attacked by various creatures, Alice kicks the lizard out of the White Rabbit’s chimney (Poor Bill!). It goes careening up into the sky and then lands with a thud, a pool of sawdust growing beneath it. The White Rabbit and the other creatures stitch up the poor Lizard, and then, using a funnel, they feed the sawdust that bled from its wound. The whole scene feels eerie, like watching someone being cannibalistically force-fed. The sawdust food is a blasphemous, animal need, contributing to survival but ultimately poisonous.

When the vanitas animals catch up to Alice, they trap her in a pantry. Alice rummages through the food on the shelves only to find constant horror awaiting: bread is filled with sharp knives, cockroaches climb out of can, tiny skulls emerge from eggs like birds, a steak comes alive and flings itself away. Basic sustenance is polluted, and Alice is hurled into a more complicated state of adolescence. Food, like her toys, is an enemy. Just as blood is both a symbol of life and death, food is both deadly and necessary.

Finally her own size and finally free, Alice gives up on food once and for all, abstinence the only option. “No more cakes or ink this time!” thinks Alice to herself.

Alice thought to herself

Surrealists use assemblage to “bewilder the senses,” and, by doing so, free the viewer from their pre-formed assumptions and open the way for unconscious associations. In Alice, the creatures are obviously, awkwardly assembled. The lizard (Poor Bill!) is comprised of bits of different creatures’ skeletons and body parts and costumes. The Caterpillar is made up of a stuffed sock, dentures, and glass eyeballs. While they have all the necessary components of creatures—eyes, mouth, legs—the effect is disconcerting, a composite terror, an Exquisite Corpse that serves as a precursor to Charlie’s bird-headed doll in Hereditary or the screaming bear in Annihilation. There’s a suggestion that the evolution of these creatures came from death as much as survival.

Alice is also assemblage, albeit figuratively. She narrates her adventure with the dialogue tags of the story: “Alice thought to herself,” or “The White Rabbit muttered to himself.” These punctuative moments appear as inserts of Alice’s mouth, extreme close ups that separate her lips from her body. In the more commonly available English-language version—the version which premiered at NYFF 30 years ago—the dubbed voice enhances this effect, as the words do not match up with the movement of Alice’s lips. Alice is further disassembled when she shrinks. The small version of herself is portrayed as a stop-motion-animated porcelain doll, the delineation between limbs and head and body distinct by nature of the toy. Alice becomes an amalgam of bits and pieces. The space between her different parts exposes gaps in her understanding of her own body, opening space to create new conclusions and ultimately develop as a character.

In the basement, disassembly also occurs by shedding one’s skin. When Alice arrives at the White Rabbit’s house, she opens the wardrobe to find hides. It’s as if the Rabbit shed his skin (or cut another’s) and then put it on a hanger in the closet to wear again. Later, in one of the most ghastly sequences of the film, the vanitas animals pursue a miniature Alice and force her into a pot of milky-white liquid. Alice falls in and then shoots up to her original height, but unlike the other times she’s grown, this time she is trapped in a paper-mache casing. Her eyes dart around behind the mask. When the animals finally leave her alone, Alice tears open the outer layer, breaks free from her doll-like husk, and stands, leaving it behind. It’s now just a hollow shell, much like the skins hanging in the White Rabbit’s closet.

Through with hiding, Alice strikes out to explore once more—only this time, she’s not following the White Rabbit. She sheds her skin in order to move forward, ripping apart what she is leaving behind in order to make room to grow. The deathly nature of the creatures suggests that violence is part of their evolution, something Alice is now experiencing herself. Her body is not only growing, but aging; not only living, but dying.

Alice thought to herself

Alice is often a passive protagonist. She follows the White Rabbit and watches in awe as other characters exert their will over hers. At the Mad Tea Party, the March Hare, and Mad Hatter barrage her with a string of commands and critiques: “Have some wine” or “Your hair wants cutting!” “Keep your temper,” commands the Caterpillar. When Alice catches up to the White Rabbit, she is confronted by the Queen of Hearts, commanded to play croquet and eventually taken to trial for (allegedly) eating the tarts. In a final attempt to control Alice, the White Rabbit, King, and Queen give her a script to follow in court. They want her head—an execution of Alice’s thoughts and identity.Jan Švankmajer's "Alice" (1988) | First Run FeaturesBut Alice refuses to comply. The safety of her body and her free will are at stake. “I’m not sorry for anything! Well, well hardly anything at all,” she says. The King pushes back, again directing her to stick to the script. Behind her, the various creatures she’s met along the way bang on pots and pans. “What do you take me for?” Alice yells. In a final act of defiance, Alice takes a tart and bites into it, asserting herself in face of not only the trial, but the antagonism with food and her body.

“Off with her head! Off with her head!” screams the Queen of Hearts. The double-edged sword is finally striking down.

Alice stuffs the tarts into her mouth, eating as fast as she can.

“Off with her head!” commands the King of Hearts.

The cacophony of the creatures grows. Alice shakes her head “no.” As she shakes her head, it briefly turns into the heads of the many creatures she has met along the way: the March Hare, the Mad Hatter, the footmen, the Queen, different attachments to her body like different folds of paper on an Exquisite Corpse. She whirls through the identities of all those who tried to take control of her and her body—

“Which one? Which one?” Alice’s voice says, an echo in the background.

Thought Alice to herself

When Alice wakes up from her dream, she has been reassembled. The right head is on the right body in the right size. The sounds of the creatures fade into the sounds of the ticking clock.

She looks around the room. The items that fabricated into the movement of her dream are now still, returned to their place, no longer deranged in their displacement—

Except for one thing. The case where the rabbit once stood is still in shambles, sawdust strewn about.

Alice goes over to the case and picks up a pair of the White Rabbit’s scissors. She regards them for a moment, and then snaps them menacingly. “He’s late as usual. I think I’ll cut his head off,” thinks Alice to herself. Alice, having been disassembled and freed from assumptions, chooses for herself.

The sawdust blood no longer bothers her; the death seemingly inherent in puberty has faded. Alice has pulled her identity together and revealed something just a bit scary and altogether fantastic, much like the unfolding of an Exquisite Corpse.

But

I nearly forgot

You must

Close your eyes

Otherwise

You won’t see anything!