Monday, May 28, 2018

SIFF 2018: Mademoiselle Paradis

Maria Theresia Paradis was a young, Viennese pianist in the late 18th-century.  For unknown reasons she went blind in childhood.  This did not stop her, though, from becoming a magnificent musician.  She was a prodigy at a time and place when there was great competition in being a musical prodigy.  In her late teens, after many years of painful eye treatments, she became the patient of doctor Franz Anton Mesmer.  Mesmer believed that all life was suffused with an invisible, vital fluid and that disease and illness were caused when this mysterious substance was blocked up.  He coined the phrase “animal magnetism” and is the source of our word “mesmerize.”  His treatments involved magnets and a special healing tub, but mostly involved gentle stroking of the patient’s head or arms or back.  This was meant to remove the alleged blockages.

After a few weeks of this unorthodox treatment Maria regained her sight.  It was Mesmer’s greatest success.  However, complications soon arose, the most important being that she could no longer play the piano.  The sight of the keys seemed to throw her off.  She sank into a deep depression.  Her parents, frightened at the news that her musical abilities were impaired - and thus her disability pension threatened - had her forcibly removed from Mesmer’s clinic.  She returned home, where she soon went completely blind but regained her amazing musical abilities.  She went on to have a highly successful career as a performer and composer, though sadly most of her works have been lost to us. 

This is the true story behind Mademoiselle Paradis, a wretched little film from Germany directed by Barbara Albert and showing as part of SIFF 2018.  There are two main problems with this movie.

First, the simple story I told above is interlarded in this film with numerous uninteresting and overwrought sub-plots involving tangental, if not entirely irrelevant, characters.  We’re subjected to scenes of fighting and scheming among the servants in Mesmer’s clinic, a sexual assault, and an attempted abortion.  We meet a young boy with mental and physical disabilities who comes to a bad end when he gets too close to the horses one night.  This sub-plot was totally clichéd and predictable and unnecessary.  “Oh, boy,” I told myself as the adorable little imp first ran onto screen chasing the carriage containing Maria “Little Nell there ain’t gonna make it.”  Right from the start you could tell that he was only being introduced into the story to get killed off later in a cheap bid for pity.  That poor little bastard.

Second, there is no chemistry between the two lead characters in this film.  Maria Dragus plays Maria and plays her as something of a freak.  From the first repulsive shot of the film - a long close up of a heavily-made up and bewigged Maria playing the piano, her eyes rolling in head, her head lolling around on her neck, and her mouth spasmodically twitching and grimacing - we get the impression that Albert sees disability as some sort of gateway to freakishness.  She makes Maria walk awkwardly and complain about her eye treatments making pus form on her scalp.  WTF!  The girl’s just blind, Barbara, she’s not the Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Albert’s depiction of Mesmer’s clinic is no better.  The patients giggle, twitch, tremble, laugh hysterically for no reason and then begin yelling uncontrollably.  During the time at the clinic we hear an unknown woman screaming in the background - exactly the sort of Snake Pit nonsense which one had hoped was discarded decades ago.  
Devid Striesow and Maria Dragus
Devid Striesow's Mesmer is cold, aloof, and stuffy.  In other words, completely devoid of exactly the sort of charm and personal magnetism that makes a faith-healer/charlatan like Mesmer such a success in life.  The scenes of he and Maria together are flat.  They lack vitality and are free of any spark of magic between the two.  And that’s fatal for this film.  Since it was Mesmer’s personal abilities - his charisma, if you will - which healed his patients, if that’s lacking in the telling of the tale then the heart of the story is missing.

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