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Opium: Diary of a Madwoman (Janos Szasz, 2007)


Opium: Diary of a Madwoman, a new Hungarian film, outwardly presents itself as some kind of big-budget prestige picture, but itís so riddled with uncomfortable moments that at the end one can only guess at what the filmmakers were aiming to accomplish. Set in 1913, almost entirely in a mental institution, the movie begins with an unsubtle visual metaphor. As the credits roll, mad gibberish scrawled onto the walls of the asylum walls is being whitewashed away by workers.  Whatís disappointing is that the movie never really develops its point of view toward the history of mental illness beyond that point. Little that it reveals manages to surprise the audience, despite the way that it clearly intends to shock us.


Given the title, itís not surprising that the opening moments here feature a womanís voiceover, but what is surprising is that her words are soon supplanted by those of a second narrator, a man named Dr. Brenner. Both an unrepentant sexual pervert and a morphine addict, heís a psychiatrist who indulges in his fair share of obsessive, deviant behavior himself. In its sick way, Opium thinks heís perfectly matched for Gizalla, the titular inmate who becomes his patient. Their twin perspectives guide the rest of the film, twisting this into some sort of distorted love story. They each bring a level of delirium to the film that keeps it on edge. Szasz never lets his movie settle into a conventional structure. This might be somewhat appropriate given the subject matter, but it ensures that Opium  remains an unpleasant viewing experience throughout.


Things get pretty ugly pretty early. Upon arrival at the asylum, Brenner walks in on  a crude brain surgery, performed with a hammer and blunt chisel. This kind of Grand Guignol excess is the norm for treatment at the facility, which seems to have been conceived to maximize shock value for visitors instead of offer any kind of cure to the patients. A similarly crass surprise greets Brenner when he first encounters Gizella. He happens upon her as sheís furiously masturbating and writhing about her cell. You certainly canít accuse actress Kirsti Stubo, who plays Gizella, of doing things halfway. Playing a character whoís convinced sheís been possessed by an evil spirit, she bursts into hysterics in just about every scene, but no amount of yelling or thrashing about makes it convincing.


Thereís too much focus here on art direction, as if the filmmakers grew excited by their high production values and ran amok. As a result, despite its brutality, the movie attains a glossy quality that seems all wrong. Thereís not much substance here beyond the surface. Some lip service is paid to the resistance that was faced during the early days of psychoanalysis. Gizella is given a journal to document her madness, which upsets the management at the asylum, despite the progress that she shows. The movie adopts an audience-flattering attitude toward her treatment, which is left unquestioned as the doctor and patient inevitably come together on physical, mental and literary levels. The whole experience of watching this is tense, dehumanizing, and fairly baffling. When Opium: Diary of a Madwoman features a tinkling piano score and a reflective stare in its final scene, itís clearly trying to make itself seem thoughtful and tragic, but it only feels like a mess.



Jeremy Heilman