Thursday, 14 January 2016

Mesmer (1994)

It's hard to believe Alan Rickman has died. After all, I only watched him on Friday evening in A Little Chaos, and - with Bowie's death on Monday - it's unthinkable that we should suffer two devastating losses in just one week. 


To mark his passing I decided to rewatch Mesmer, a film I have always had a soft spot for despite being a deeply flawed piece. Many have pointed out that Rickman - who won the best actor award at the Montreal Film Festival for his performance here - is the only good thing in the film but, whilst it is true he is on fine form here, to say so would be a disservice to others such as Michael Nyman's score and Dennis Potter's script.

Franz Anton Mesmer remains as complex a character today as he was in the 18th century. To some he was a miracle man, to others he was simply a charlatan. A medical man who held contempt for the practices and theories of his peers and contemporaries, Mesmer believed he could cure illnesses by harnessing magnetic energy and  by having his patients will themselves to get better. The central relationship in the film is between Rickman's Mesmer and Amanda Ooms' blind pianist Marie-Theresa and the script explores the healer/patient relationship and how it becomes a love affair which ultimately discredits Mesmer. 


Potter first wrote the script for Mesmer in the early '80s and, before this film version came about just before his death, he had tried to get it made around four times. The script bears all the hallmarks of classic Potter and I especially love how he uses the act of sex as a pivotal moment for much of the drama; for Marie-Theresa, sex is both the reason for her condition and her saviour. Potter suggests that her blindness is a psychological condition stemming from the sexual abuse she suffers at the hands of her father and, when one of Mesmer's patients flees the rapist intentions of his stepson, she runs into Marie-Theresa causing her to fall to the floor and regain her sight. It's classic Potter, as is the rich dialogue and the characteristic sly humour he uses throughout what is, to me, an unsung gem of a script.

Unfortunately, Potter willfully refuses to be drawn on where he stands in the fraud or genius debate;"half charlatan, half genius" is how he referred to him and such ambivalence can hamper our emotional connection with the character in the film. Thankfully, Rickman's performance is much more grounded, suggesting a man who truly believes he has the power to heal in the way he preaches, but is aware how elusive that power actually is. Rickman, ever the charismatic performer, spends a good deal of the time looking otherwordly (often before his glass armonica), or pained at the lack of satisfactory outcomes and in doing so engages very well with us the audience.


For me the real issue at the heart of Mesmer is the weak direction of Roger Spottiswoode who never seems to have a handle on, or understanding of, the material he is working with. I recall reading Rickman had several ideas about how the film should be presented which Spottiswoode disagreed with and nixed at every turn. One such idea from the actor was closing the final scene with the anachronistic sound effect of modern warfare and helicopters. I can't say I understand why Rickman felt that was required, but it's easy to be confused by such a remark out of context. Overall, I think Spottiswoode needed to listen to someone and take on board some ideas because as it stands the film in his hands often descends into dullness, with very little feeling of actual direction taking place. Mesmer is the kind of film that should never become boring - how can mass hysteria ever be boring? At times you wish for a Ken Russell to handle some of the treatment scenes, especially those with the ladies in the court of Versailles who seem to find an orgiastic delight to Mesmer's ministrations. 

Overall, Spottiswoode's best scenes are those which focus firmly on how much the camera was captivated by Rickman's presence; as Mesmer plays his armonica his face becomes the moon - the centrepoint of much of his theories - before we see a flashback to Mesmer as a child, head resting against a rock as he listens to the turn of the earth. Again, this was something that was featured in greater detail in Potter's original draft, but something went missing from script to screen. A shame.

In short, Mesmer is far from being a great film, but it is a good example of Alan Rickman's own magnetism and his talents as an actor. He will be missed. 


RIP

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