When Jakob (Rylance) arrives at Institute Benjamenta, things begin to unhinge. He becomes attracted to his beautiful but fragile teacher, Lisa - who co-runs the institute with her brother Johannes. As Lisa's state deteriorates, the stern Johannes makes the connection that it has occured since Jakob arrived...
Influenced heavily by Jan Svankmajer and a range of European expressionist and surrealist writers, British resident American animators, Timothy and Stephen Quay, have developed an unmistakable, startling and seductive style with their creations, applying themselves to commercials, video clips and idents for MTV. Institute Benjamenta Or This Dream People Call Human Life - loosely based on the Robert Walser novel Jakob Von Gunten - is the Quays' first feature and first sustained live-action film, though a credit for "choreographer" suggests they have treated their actors much as they would have treated their puppets.
It has plot and characters, but it is more concerned with the play of light and shadow (in ravishing black-and-white) and the occasional horrid beauty of found objects. The title location is a school for servants run by the cloven-hoofed Herr Benjamenta (John) and his enigmatic sister (Krige), who swishes a cane topped with an animal's foot. New pupil Jakob (Rylance) probes the mysteries of the place and obscurely shakes up the situation, bringing about echoes of Poe's House Of Usher.
Enacted in several sub-titled languages with the occasional title-card, this feels like an early talkie, stranded between Dr. Caligari and Vampyr. Your mind keeps skittering off the narrative, as zombie-like characters shuffle like the slaves of Metropolis, but the film is mesmerising. And though solemn and strange, it has a vein of very dry humour and a script teeming with weirdo one-liners.
It may be a bit thin an not especially effective in terms of narrative drive, but there's no denying the truly awesome visuals created here.