The Saragossa Manuscript DVD review

David Lynch's favourite film is out on DVD in the UK for the first time, and - predictably - it's pretty weird...

Zbigniew Cybulski spoilt for choice in The Saragossa Manuscript

Wojciech Has’s epic 1965 adaptation of Jan Potocki’s 19th-century novel is an intimidating prospect out of the box – filmed in black and white and in Polish (with English subtitles on the DVD), a three-hour running time and a cast of characters that makes Dickens’ work look meagrely populated, it’s not pizza-fodder for late Saturday night.

However, fans of the surreal and of horror and suspense have quite a lot to look forward to here. Set in 18th-century Spain, Manuscript is a picaresque frame-tale rather than an anthological work, centring very loosely around the discovery of a book which recounts a bizarre and recursive series of tales-within-tales. So deeply-nested are the core narratives within other narratives that the casual viewer may give up trying to follow the thread of causalities, and simply go with the flow.

The starting point is the tale of brash young Spanish captain Alphonse van Worden (played by Zbigniew Cybulski, who bears a striking resemblance to 60s/70s fantasy-film star Doug McClure), who leads his terrified men an ‘evil way’ through the Spanish mountains to regroup at Madrid, camping out in a haunted village at the notorious ‘Sierra Morena’ .

Here Van Worden is beguiled and hexed by two rather Sapphic sisters; these odd temptresses claim to be part of the captain’s own family lineage, and promise him eternal pleasure with them both if he will renounce his Christian faith and become a Muslim.

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Van Worden awakens amongst the skulls of the hangman’s compound, and flees both mystified and terrified to the refuge of a priest, who explains that the affectionate sisters are actually the souls of two evil hanged men who haunt the village. Understanding that the errant officer may have wandered off the path not only to Madrid, but to salvation, the priest brings in his ward – a possessed but sympathetic ex-nobleman called Pacheco – to recount his own bizarre tale…

Hereafter The Saragossa Manuscript truly launches into its labyrinthine sub-nests of tales – no sooner has one character begun to recount his own before a character within it does likewise. The deeper the recursion, the more Manuscript seems to depart from its base morality tale and from the gothic ambience which is arguably the most engaging aspect of the piece, into a series of stories about thwarted love and bizarre wranglings at the courts of the powerful.

Stylistically, the film is undoubtedly a masterpiece, if an obscure one: the music of Krzysztof Penderecki (so effectively employed in There Will Be Blood, Wild At Heart and The Shining) gives the film’s darker passages an appropriately blasted and sulphurous backdrop, whilst the remote locations and superb black-and-white cinematography combine with first-class production-design to evoke the era of late 18th-century Spain.

Since Manuscript has all the visual trappings of a Sunday-afternoon matinee on BBC2, its powerful eroticism is doubly shocking, with a fair amount of female nudity that may seem tasteful now, but caused problems for the film’s initial distribution, much as the sexual content of the novel was an obstacle for its author.

Many cinematic luminaries claim to love The Saragossa Manuscript, including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Luis Bunuel and David Lynch. Lynch fans unfamiliar with Has’s creepy opus will be open-jawed to understand how influenced their hero has been by this film, from the unexpected switches between humour and horror, to the fragmented sound effects, freestyle surrealism and musical quirks.

Extras are limited in this edition to a stills gallery; to be fair, a three-hour movie leaves little space on DVD-9 for much more. Nonetheless this is a film that needs putting in some kind of historical context, and it’s a shame that Manuscript’s famous fans could not have appeared in a documentary extra. A previous US edition had a useful map to help the viewer navigate the complex intermeshing of characters, plots and stories, and this would have been a great aid to enjoying the film in this release.

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This is an amusing, creepy, erotic and very leisurely experience. It’s certainly not going to be to everyone’s taste, but it beguiles as effectively as Van Worden’s muses, and I must admit that I am unable to award stars to a film which is so removed from its potential peers in style, approach and execution. There may be no film like enough to The Saragossa Manuscript to which one might draw a comparison…

RRP: £17.99

Runtime: 180 minutes

Language: Polish (with English subtitles)