Who is the curious girl we follow down the rabbit hole? Many people of my generation probably picture Disney’s well-behaved blond soprano, and now we can add Tim Burton’s bare-shouldered adult heroine to our Alice repertoire. None too sinister young ladies: the world Alice’s imagination creates can be scary, but it’s full of reassuring and whimsical characters.
The Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer’s Alice seems no less benign at first, though she doesn’t go out of her way to be cute: her pink frock is a bit grubby, her face unemotive. Very soon, we sense something a little off. While the Alice interpreted by Disney holds a charming one-sided conversation with a kitten to vent her boredom, Svankmajer’s Alice sits in a silent, dusty room under a humming light bulb and throws pebbles into a cup of tea.
Svankmajer is a political filmmaker–he was banned from work for seven years for using documentary footage that Soviet authorities preferred to keep hidden–and it’s easy to see the tense environment at the beginning of Alice as a critique of his society’s living conditions. Were the answer so simple, Alice could escape into her own imagination. But something is rotten in this Alice’s Wonderland. After falling down the “rabbit hole” (here, a desk drawer in the middle of a plain of rocks), the girl wanders through what seems to be an poorly maintained, infinite apartment building, no less decrepit than her own “real” bedroom. Silence is only broken by ticks, creaks, and animal footsteps; rooms are filled with a sickly electric light; everything exists amid dust and roaches.
Throughout, Svankmajer mixes organic and inorganic life forms, dead and living flesh, and comic and grim violence. What makes Wonderland terrifying is its stop-motion fauna: skeletal monstrosities such as a fish on spindly legs and a deer skull on top of a femur that drags itself along the floor; socks transformed into caterpillars, frog- and fish-footmen with mouths permanently agape, and moldering puppets. The heroine herself periodically turns into a doll which finds itself in danger of being captured or broken. Even the full-sized Alice must face the Queen of Heart’s decapitation fetish in a trial scene heavy with arbitrary political menace.
To the surrealist, children are no innocents, and Alice’s curiosity leads her into her own internally logical fantasy whose common denominators are threat and force. Her guide is the iconic White Rabbit, who turns out to be the Queen’s executioner. Svankmajer shows himself at maximum perversity in his interpretation of the Rabbit as a taxidermied zombie perpetually leaking sawdust out of his dry, sutured belly. This Rabbit, unlike Carroll’s, does not appear out of nowhere but starts as Alice’s possession; he already belongs to her world. The mutilated Rabbit rips out the nails pinning him inside his glass display case, nearly disintegrating in the process. Here is the moment wherein we discover a new Wonderland, in which a child animates the decay around her with the violence already developing in her psyche.
Meet Svankmajer’s White Rabbit here