"Opium — A Madwoman's Diary": Madness, in Shades of Gray By Hrvoje Puksec

in 17th Cottbus Festival of East European Cinema

by Hrvoje Puksec

The First World War is about to start, a new era is on the horizon and its messenger is a psychiatrist with new methods, old sins and eternal problems. His name is Jozsef Brenner (played by the brilliant Ulrich Thomsen), a Freudian doctor, an opium addict and a novelist with writer’s block. His plan to escape his daily frustrations and depression by taking a job at a god-forsaken mental hospital somewhere in the countryside goes awry almost as soon as he arrives. A beautiful patient, Gizella Klein, waits for him in the asylum. A woman haunted by raving thoughts — and, on top of those, by the obsessive need to write down everything that crosses her mind. Can things get more challenging for the dysfunctional doctor?

Opium — A Madwoman’s Diary (Ópium — Egy elmebeteg nö naplója) is the fourth feature film by the Hungarian director János Szász and is, in its concept, a truly original piece of art. The actual diaries of Géza Csáth, a famous Hungarian neurologist and pioneer of psychoanalysis, were used in the creation of the character Jozsef Brenner. But Gizella Klein is also, in part, a product of reality. Her thoughts and fears are taken from a real madwoman’s diary. With the clash of these two different realities, Szász has made a powerful, visually impeccable feature film that explores the notions of sanity and madness; of the fine layers that lie somewhere in between these highly opposite states of human behavior.

In many ways, Opium — A Madwoman’s Diary plays as a vivid textbook on the history of madness — or, to be more precise, on the “scientific” way we attempt to treat it. The rich production design turns the mental hospital into a museum of abandoned therapies and experimental treatments for the untreatable — violent approaches relying on nothing more than a hammer and a chisel, or cold water, or bursts of electricity. On the other hand … some of those methods are still in use. The film questions all of modern medicine’s peaks and breakthroughs, while acknowledging at the same time that we haven’t come up with anything better. The walls around mental hospitals are, unfortunately, the same height today as they were a century ago. Of course, there are some changes: Thanks to all those little blue and red pills, the patients inside those walls are much quieter now.

Let’s return to Szász’ Opium. The brave decision of giving the main roles to Kirsti Stubø and Ulrich Thomsen — Scanadanavians, rather than native Hungarian speakers — mandated certain conditions, such as the use of a narrator and the style of the camera work. Numerous close-ups force us to focus on the actors’ eyes, rather than their lips; the average non-Hungarian, used to reading subtitles, will never notice the actors are not native speakers. Director Szász considered his stars the perfect choice, in Thomsen, he was completely right. The actor’s calm, cold face — hiding the apparent chaos behind obviously cynical and brutal eyes — is ideal for the role. On the other hand, Stubø seems too modern for her role. Her performance is powerful — at times, even breathtaking — but too often she looks like a model, an imported symbol from the 21st century.

The conclusion is, in a way, predictable. Opium – A Madwoman’s Diary is a memorable, very stylized film with strong leading roles. While the idea behind it sometimes outshines the piece as a whole, this film shouldn’t be dismissed as superficial or pretentious. The compelling, metaphorically complex story dares to examine an area that is too often dismissed or simply ignored: The grey area between sanity and madness.