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Opium: Diary of a Madwoman

Opium: Diary of a Madwoman

Studio:Koch Lorber Home Video
Director:János Szász
Cast:Ulrich Thomsen, Kirtsi Stub
Release Date:2007
Genre:Drama, Foreign

By Bret McCabe | Posted 11/19/2008

THE MOVIE Hungarian director János Szász's 2007 Opium: Diary of a Madwoman has some rather grim online-only reviews for a title that appears to have been screened primarily at festivals, reviews that soberly remark on its slow pace, its treatment of the (possibly) mentally impaired, its sheen of big-budget period picture, its basis on the novel of real-life Hungarian doctor Géza Csáth. And while, yes, if you're the sort who requires your foreign-language historical epics to make sense, be believable, and offer some sense of narrative drive, then Opium is a bit of a hand-wringing disappointment. If, however, you can laugh at misguided cinematic ambition, then prepare for a good row. Just recalibrate the brain to consider Opium as poker-faced artiness that aims for the arch delights of The Devils-era Ken Russell and/or the deadpan naturalism of Flesh for Frankenstein-era Paul Morrissey. Even though it falls way short of the gusto offered by those two brilliant gems, Opium still provides ample opportunity to howl like a well-lubricated Noel Coward in Joseph Losey's fabulously dreadful Boom.

Dr. Brenner (Festen's Ulrich Thomsen--just imagine he's being played by Udo Kier) takes a position at an early-20th-century Hungarian insane asylum, where he knows he'll have fairly easy access to the opium for which he's developed a taste. There, the platinum-blonde and snow-white-pale Gizella (Kirtsi Stubø) is a patient whose voice-over mental life sounds active and relatively stable, but whose actual life is one calamity after another. Gizella is prone to masturbating with a pencil in the loo, and during an examination with Dr. Brenner she confesses that the Devil lives "down there," inside her--just guess where--and inserts her fingers as if pointing to the seat of this possession. By the way, did I mention that this happens while she's completely nude and Dr. Brenner has blindfolded her with his tie to test her, um, hearing?

Yes, between Opium's gorgeously lit scenes of hands whitewashing asylum walls covered in psychotic scrawl and grave nuns running to and fro over stone paths, the movie lunges into scenes ripped from The Story of O as written by Torquemada. Gizella endures one highly orchestrated medical treatment after another--being dunked into a tank of water, being restrained, being spun upside down, etc.--that make you think she's been transported to a Nine Inch Nails video. Given such Grand Guignol melodrama, of course the opium-shooting Dr. Brenner and Gizella become lovers in a delicate tango of early-20th-century codependency.

THE DISC Alas, but a trio of extras: a making-of featurette, interviews with the cast and crew, and excised B-roll footage.

E-mail Bret McCabe

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