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'Alice' (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 23, 1988

What the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer does in "Alice" seems more akin to alchemy than moviemaking. His is an art of dark conjuring, brought to life more by the wave of a wand than the slap of a clapper board.

Anyone who's ever slept in the same room with a larger-than-normal-sized doll will have some idea of the atmosphere of vague dread in "Alice." The film begins with the words, "Now you will see a film for children. Perhaps." They're recited by a pretty blond child (Kristy'na Kohoutova') with large intelligent eyes and a willful expression. The child is surrounded by her toys, some bits of food left over from tea, drawings and other everyday items, all scattered in disarray.

It is out of these ordinary oddities that Svankmajer creates the inhabitants of Alice's sleep. Svankmajer's creations have a quality of wonderment, but of a very peculiar sort; they're partly enchanted, partly haunted, and there's a hint of the morphologist's lab in them, a trace of formaldehyde. In a corner is a glass case containing a large stuffed white rabbit, which comes to life with a kind of shiver. Donning a red velvet livery with a lace collar and a matching top hat, the White Rabbit breaks out of its case, pulls a pocket watch out of a rip in its chest and hurries off, eventually disappearing into a desk drawer.

Desks and desk drawers figure prominently in Svankmajer's world of symbols. Sometimes they're like rabbit holes, passages into other worlds; sometimes they fulfill their normal function, though not quite in normal ways. In one drawer, Alice finds an inkwell, the contents of which she drinks, causing her to shrink into a doll. Later, a bite of a cookie causes her to return to normal size.

"Alice," which according to the credits was "inspired" by the Lewis Carroll tale, sticks fairly closely to the story's basic plot. Along the way, though, Svankmajer departs from the original, in many cases using Carroll's words but taking the liberty to create his own action, his own world. Svankmajer's addition to Carroll's word games is the element of psychological danger. Alice's dreams have the scrambled frenzy of a child who has fallen asleep in an uncomfortable position. The images are troubled, menace-laden.

Traveling through the psychic landscape Svankmajer has created, Alice seems somehow to be at risk. The world seems to be in revolt against her, threatening her, bearing in. Or else it's simply mysterious, alien.

This mirrors a feeling that we often had as children, when objects appeared large and unmanageable, and grown-ups spoke in what seemed to us like code. Svankmajer possesses the kind of technical mastery that carries us over mechanical questions, allowing us to concentrate on the deeper meanings in the work.

But meanings, in the strict sense, are elusive. And what's more, you have no interest in pinning him down, in deciphering the messages. Svankmajer communicates through textures, colors, moods, and he delivers his ideas by implication, obliquely, in a nonliteral, though still accessible, manner.

If he has a deficiency, it's in his sense of narrative. For all its poetic power, "Alice" doesn't reveal Svankmajer to be a very natural storyteller, and occasionally we get bogged down in the enactment of his secret ceremonies. Not lost, but adrift.

Still, Svankmajer's sinister visual music has an irresistible potency and allure. Watching it, we feel the enthrallment of the irrational. It takes us back to a time in the history of movies when audiences responded to the images on screen with a combination of awe and fear, when in submitting to them, we felt as if we were submitting to a spell.

Alice is unrated

Copyright The Washington Post

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