Koch Lorber // 2007 // 109 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // November 21st, 2008
Better to have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.
Not to make fun of mental illness, of course, but this strange Hungarian film about morphine, insanity, and romance in a draconian asylum is at once extremely self-serious and almost shockingly exploitative. It's hard to know how to take Opium: Diary of a Madwoman, but maybe a little of that title stuff will help.
Dr. Josef Brenner (Ulrich Thomsen, The Weight of Water), a psychiatrist and writer struggling to create, transfers to a remote women's institution in the hope of making a change in his life. He neglects to tell them, however, that he has a lecherous streak a mile wide and is hopelessly addicted to morphine. His skills with the mind deflect most suspicion from him, and he's assigned the case of Gizella (Kirsti Stubø), one of their most difficult patients. She has been there for a decade and writes compulsively. Dr. Brenner is fascinated by her diaries, and quickly finds himself charmed by her insistence that the lower half of her body is possessed by the lustful will of the devil.
Viewers find out quickly that director János Szász (Eyes of the Holocaust) pulls no punches in Opium: Diary of a Madwoman, when it opens with a graphic old-school frontal lobotomy. For those who fear waking up in the middle of surgery or, generally, just having somebody pounding an instrument into their skull while they watch, this beginning will be a serious turn-off. Don't worry, though, this is just the first of plenty of torture sequences guaranteed to give everybody a lot of faith in how far we've come in the mental health profession. Whether it's somebody stuffed in a 2x2 box, being tied up and submerged in a pool while a bunch of people watch you, or having their head put in a vice so they can be force fed a milky gruel, there's something here for everybody.
In demonstrating what a mental hospital was like in turn-of-the-century Hungary, Szász sends us through a gauntlet of torture scenes that don't lead anywhere. The sequences are gruesomely realistic and make me fear even more for my sanity, but the scenes stand alone as set pieces rather than relating to any other part of the film. Because they only occasionally intersect with the story of the junkie with writer's block and his obsession with his patient, they become like a random murder scene in a horror film. While they may be interesting on their own terms, they are irrelevant and distracting from the matter at hand.
The trouble, in this case, is that the "therapy" scenes are more interesting than the story. It's clear that, aside from her relative beauty in a decidedly ugly place, Dr. Brenner is obsessed with Gizella because of the obsessive freedom of her writing. We know that Brenner once was a successful writer; he wrote a book about the experience of the opium addict, a very likely reason for many of his current problems. Logically, it would fit that, because of his writer's block, he would find some inspiration (or at least some material to steal) from Gizelle's diary, but we have no clear indication of what she writes about or what brought her to this compulsive state. The brief times we see her work, it is a messy, overlapping scrawl, and I don't think it would be easier to understand if I could read Hungarian, and all we're left to go on is a voiceover talking about the devil possessing her body (or, at least, the bottom half of it).
If we had to make fewer wild guesses about these characters and some indication of their motivations, it might be easier to swallow the ensuing romance between doctor and patient. When it comes, however, I simultaneously wondered why it didn't happen sooner and why it had to happen at all. Brenner's a lecherous doctor and the devil makes Gizelle horny so, on the level of showing some exploitative sex scenes, they're a fine match. For as serious as Szász has taken the script and subject matter, it undermines any point he tries to make.
The story has notes of both serious film and exploitation, but the performances are heavily serious. In this way, the acting is the best part of the film, especially from Kirsti Stubø, whose ordeal in filming this movie must have been as horrible as it seems. Her pale, sallow face and long wide stare are the embodiment of insanity. Her dialogue jumps back and forth between completely random and very soberly serious, making her seem all the crazier and giving an emotional weight to her lines. The other actors are full of gravitas, none of them are as solid as Stubø. Part of me is convinced that the film is some sort of joke that is better because the actors aren't in on it. They see the project as an expose of early mental hospitals, while everybody else sees an exploitation film. Unfortunately, there's nothing that clever here, only a series of disparate threads woven together to make a confusing and overdone, if sometimes very strange and gruesome, film with some bright spots. Mostly, it drove me as crazy as some of those poor souls in the film.
Koch Lorber has done better than their average with this film. There are many different lighting and tinting styles and the transfer captures all of them very well. The whites are bright, the blacks are dark, and there is good saturation in the colors. The surround sound is fairly weak, but all the dialog is very clear. For extras, we have a making of featurette, interviews with the cast and crew, and a roll of behind the scenes footage where the cast looks considerably less insane than they do in the film.
Although there isn't a lot that makes sense about Opium: Diary of a Madwoman, the film does have a good look with a lot of style and, though there is little sense for their inclusion, the torturous therapy sessions are long, brutal, and very effective. They add a horror mood to the film that would have worked, had Szász decided to stick with one thread or one style at any point in the film. Those looking for scenes to make them squirm should find it here, and in high enough quantity to keep them watching the meandering storyline.
Brutal torture, doctor-on-patient action, and a good sense of style do not outweigh an outrageously self-serious and exploitative plot. The film is as schizophrenic as the inmates.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Hungarian)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "Making of"
* Behind the scenes