The dreams of reason just keep churning out new monsters. But among its chief nightmares is the realization that there may be nothing truly novel under the sun, only new skin for the old ceremony; and nowhere do we see this eternal return (Fortuna’s wheel of mostly woe) spin itself out more dizzyingly than in the literature of supernatural horror, in which a limited number of tropes and traps are recapitulated and repurposed generation after cursed generation.
One such trope, made most famous by H.P. Lovecraft’s invention of the Necronomicon, is the tome of eldritch lore, blasphemous and forbidden, references to which add fresh (if foul) dimensions of threat and mystery to tales set in the putative present. Jan Potocki’s Tales From the Saragossa Manuscript (aka The Manuscript Found in Saragossa) — written in French by a Polish aristocrat and set in a Spain that (mostly if not initially) looks a lot like Don Quixote’s — is in this tradition, and finds its recurring frame in the sinister, secret book after which the novel is named.
In 1964, Polish filmmaker Wojciech Has brought Potocki’s vertiginous labyrinth of nested stories to the silver screen, and the result — now restored to pristine black & white, itself a reanimation of an old specter — pulls off a brilliant balancing act between the macabre and the ridiculous. A three-hour marvel of picaresque perversity, it rewards the attentive viewer with richly confounding, self-referential conundra even as it revels in Rabelaisian ribaldry and farce.
In Potocki’s world — a world he left, by his own hand, shortly after his still-unfinished book was published — every tale is told by an idiot, and every tale told produces another idiot, who tells another tale, and none of it signifies anything, except that we are all born fantasists, story-lovers and storytellers, endlessly reproducing the grounds of our own futility one dark and stormy night after (or within) another. As in Beckford’s Vathek — and Burton’s Arabian Nights for that matter — there is more than a hint here of Islam-exoticizing Orientalism. But above all there is a quality of slapstick nihilism that fits cinema like an elegantly tailored death mask.
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