"Stick to the text!", the King of Hearts demands - in vain - near the end of Jan Svankmajer's Alice, as the titular heroine (played by Kristýna Kovoutová) refuses to read out her scripted statement in court, let alone to bow to his or the Queen's arbitrary authority.

The King's command might as well be addressed to Svankmajer himself. This was not the first time that the filmmaker and puppeteer, a committed member of the Czechoslovak Surrealist Group since 1968, had turned to the model of the celebrated literary proto-surrealist Lewis Carroll; yet much as Svankmajer's short film Jabberwocky (1971) could hardly be regarded as a literal adaptation of Carroll, his debut feature Alice is said in its opening credits only to be 'inspired by', rather than adapted from, Carroll's famous novel.

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Even Alice's original Czech title Neco z Alensky, or literally 'Something Of Alice', suggests that the film's fidelity to Carroll's text will be tentative at best. Svankmajer may broadly adhere to the spirit - and in some cases even the letter - of the original Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, presenting a continuous parade of recognisable characters and episodes from this much-loved book of nonsense but there are striking deviations too, as Svankmajer rebels against the authority even of his chosen source.

It is not just the absence of such iconic figures as the Mock Turtle, the Dodo, the Cheshire Cat and the Duchess (the last replaced in her child-minding duties by a multi-tasking White Rabbit) that marks Svankmajer's free approach to disassembling Carroll, but also the way that the director's heady mélange of live action and stop-motion animation does away entirely with the familiar iconography of John Tenniel's famous illustrations.

Here the White Rabbit is a manic-looking taxidermy exhibit escaped from its own display case; Bill the Lizard is a sawdust-stuffed crocodile with a bird skull for a head; the Frog Footman swats flies with a pot-denting tongue the size of a cow's; the Mad Hatter is an antique wooden marionette; the March Hare is a wind-up plush toy with a habit of buttering fobwatches; the Dormouse is a slithering fox pelt; and, perhaps most memorably of all, the Caterpillar is a sock puppet with incongruous false teeth and eyes that have to be stitched shut for sleep. These and other defamiliarised figures, reconstructed from items in Alice's bedroom, are as inventively realised as they are genuinely nightmarish – not that Alice herself ever seems much fazed.

Svankmajer has left a very personal stamp on Carroll's tale, littering it with the detritus of his own obsessions and anxieties. If, in both the opening riverside sequence and its re-enactment in her bedroom in the following scene, Alice is shown (and heard) tossing pebbles into liquid, this 'echoes' Svankmajer's own prominent use of rock as a material for animation in the early short films J S Bach - Fantasy in G Minor (1965) and A Game With Stones (1965). If Alice's first steps into Wonderland involve her walking and sometimes crawling through a series of shadowy underground passageways full of palpable threat, this reprises scenes from his earlier short Down To The Cellar (1983).

All the film's anthropomorphised objects and archived oddities derive less from Carroll than from Svankmajer's own well-established preoccupation with Emperor Rudolf II's collected 'cabinets of curiosities' and the Mannerist artworks of Rudolf's court painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo – a preoccupation that is played out in many of the director's short films. Meanwhile, Svankmayer's wife Eva Svankmajerová, who was responsible for the film's extraordinary art direction, has decked out the cutout Queen of Hearts with the unmistakable likeness of her own face.

Svankmajer, however, has no such cameo in his film, preferring to make the wilful dreamer Alice his proxy. For it is Alice here who takes on the role of writer, director and editor of her own adventures. During the opening title sequence, she (or at least her cracked lips, shot in disconcerting close-up) formally (and paradoxically) introduces her story direct to camera as a movie: "Now you will see a film, made for children – perhaps." She then continues intermittently to narrate her own experiences even as she acts them out, referring to herself in the third person, and voicing all the other characters herself. As though to underline this authorial status of hers, she is transported from one location to another not through a rabbit-hole but via the drawer of her writing desk, while the magic potion that changes her size is in fact ink from her inkpot, and the written statement handed to her in the court scene is in fact her own notebook, the name 'Alice' clearly written on the cover.

Alice will of course deviate even from that script in the climactic trial scene, when she makes her spirited bid for absolute freedom of expression in the face of the royals' ridiculous tyranny. Once the pack of cards has been overturned and Alice wakes up, there is an irrational coda, unrelated to anything in Carroll, wherein Alice is shown acquiring for herself the very power that she had resisted in others and, in a distinctly Queen-like pique over the White Rabbit's tardiness, threatening to cut off his head herself. The cynicism here is pure Svankmajer (as well as Orwell), supporting, no less than all the grotesquerie and creepiness on display, Alice's earlier claim that this film is 'perhaps' not so suitable for children after all.

Yet there is another, parallel interpretation available for this ending. Unlike Carroll's White Rabbit, Svankmajer's keeps about him a large pair of scissors (with a ferociously over-amplified snip). These it will emerge, he uses to fulfil his decapitating duties as the royal executioner, whenever the Queen shouts "Off with their heads!". During the rigged court case that, within the context of this film's timing and provenance, clearly evokes a Soviet show trial, Alice faces precisely the threat of being cut with those scissors.

Of course, working in Czechoslovakia under a Communist regime that (correctly) considered his absurd productions to be subversive, Svankmajer himself was no stranger to summary demands from on high or the threat of the censor's scissors, having met on numerous occasions with state interference, with bans and even with forced hiatuses in his filmmaking career. Yet he managed to make Alice under the very noses of the Czech authorities, working covertly with a tiny film crew in his own studios and using funds brought in from abroad (and officially designated for a different project). The film had its debut at the 1988 Berlinale Festival before the Czech delegation had even had a chance to see it. So when Alice is shown clutching the Rabbit's scissors herself, it is entirely possible to regard these closing images as Svankmajer's triumphant celebration for turning the tables on his own rulers and getting his final cut.

Alice certainly is a triumph of the creative imagination, reordering both Lewis Carroll's original text and the drabness of the material world into a disturbing wonderland of textures and tactility – and like any great surrealist work (or indeed childish fancy), it invests the most ordinary household objects with a strange, even shocking sublimity. Most impressively of all, Svankmajer's film makes the audiovisual realm seem like the natural home for a story more usually associated with wordplay and written wit. Far from sticking to the text, Svankmajer repaints the pictures in his own curious style.

Reviewed on: 26 May 2011
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Surreal adventure 'inspired by' the Lewis Carroll classic.
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Director: Jan Svankmajer

Writer: Lewis Carroll, Jan Svankmajer

Starring: Kristýna Kohoutová, Camilla Power

Year: 1988

Runtime: 86 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, UK, West Germany


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