Opium: Diary of a Madwoman
Koch Lorber Films // Unrated // $26.98 // November 11, 2008
Review by J. Doyle Wallis | posted December 10, 2008
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The 2007 Hungarian film Diary of a Madwoman takes place in the early 1900's. It begins with Dr. Josef Brenner (Ulrich Thomsen), a fairly well-known psychiatrist and writer and secret dope addict, starting his employment at an asylum where he is less concerned with treating patients and more concerned with scoring his next fix and overcoming a serious case of emotional and writers block. When it comes to his journal entries, which consist mainly of Brenner's dry dope routine and hollow accounts of empty sex with homely women, Brenner is no Bukowski or Burroughs. Benner does eventually become fixated on one patient, Gizella Klein (Kirsti Stubř), a young, malnourished, virgin, who is convinced that evil is trying to posses her through her, shall we say, lower half. Gizella also scrawls in journals or on walls nearly every chance she gets. Benner becomes at odds with his colleges because he finds Gizella's psychosis and writing fascinating while the other doctors dismiss her work as digressive ranting and the nuns find it evil.

I guess the film makers were maybe aiming for some Quills-style expose of twisted passions and medieval medical practices. I'm not just using that as a lazy analogy either. Both films were inspired by the writings of real characters, respectively the Marquis De Sade and doctor/author Geza Csath. Where Quills had a compelling subtext about freedom, carnal desires, and morality, Opium just has all the torture and almost no subtext. It is actually less arthouse fare and more exploitation because the film spends as much time delving into the characters as it does simply showing off Gizella being tortured (electroshock, dunked in water, force fed, hung by straps, etc.,etc...).

The DVD's back cover synopsis boasts Opium: Diary of a Madwoman as a "Faustian tale of obsession, addiction, and madness." I guess that's fair, but the film tells us within the first five minutes that one main character is an addict, the other is mad, and neither soul has any gray area or much psychological depth beyond that. He's in a creative rut. She's crazy-creative (no pun intended). Gee, I wonder if by films end he'll start appropriating her work for his own? From the start, they are both so screwed up it makes the obsessive part not a big stretch, certainly not one that needs 109 minutes to wade through. That is the reason I am dismissive of the film; it is just a bit too obvious. The first moment he steps into the asylum Benner witnesses a lobotomy. One of the first things Gizella utters to him is, "Remove my brain" and repeats this throughout the film. If that wasn't enough, the misanthropic tone leaves little mystery as to how things are going to end up. Both characters are so dysfunctional, Gizella too delusional and Benner too expressionless, it was even hard to believe any love or compassion angle that the story tries to sell.

While I am dismissive of this as a film that works at accomplishing any creative vitality or insight, that is not to say it doesn't entertain. Technically the direction- well, the look- is pretty good. Though they didnt add up much to the story, the guilt-free gawker in me I got a kick out of the archaic methods of further distressing the distressed. Performancewise Stubř really throws herself into the role quite admirably and is all haunted eyes, pallid features, twisting and contorting her thin frame with believable pain. I wasn't really bored for any minute of the film, just, by the end, left wanting and considering its faults more than its positives.

The DVD: Koch Lorber.

Picture: Presented in Anamorphic Widescreen, the film boasts a dour and subject matter appropriate visual scheme. Colors lean towards the pallid. Contrast is a tad murky. Technically there is some compression evident and some edge enhancement is noticeable, so it isn't the most detailed or tight transfer.

Sound: The disc has two very basic 2.0 Stereo tracks, one in Hungarian, the other in English. The only subtitle option is for English.

The most interesting thing about the audio is that while the disc states Hungarian as the original language, viewers will notice that neither of the lead actors lips match the Hungarian track. Switch over to the English track and the match is better but still off. It is pretty clear that this is one of those foreign film dub cases where the leads were speaking English, for the most part, during filming but apparently did not do their own post dubbing for either the Hungarian or English tracks.

Extras: Well, director János Szász says at the start of the "Making of" featurette (25:20), "It's a horrid story... it's a terrible story." So, I guess I was right about feeling it was a misanthropic chore. In addition to the nice, well-rounded "making of," the disc also features cast and crew interviews (ranging from 2 to 8 mins) and behind the scenes B-roll footage (10:42).

Conclusion: Horndog, dope addict doctor + Cute, crazy, devil crotch patient = pretty easy to see where this one is heading and Opium: Diary of a Madwoman certainly doesn't provide any twists. I love a ennui-laced Euro arthouse film as much as the next guy, but this is the kind of movie that plays to the maudlin cliches of the genre. It is technically adept (pretty to look at) and Stubo gives an energetic performance, so foreign film lovers may want to check it out for those creds alone. The DVD is okay, but overall I've got to give this one a rental.

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