Austrian auteur Barbara Albert (‘Falling’) tackles a strange tale set in Rococo Vienna in her latest film, which premiered in the Platform competition at the Toronto Film Festival.
A blind harpsichordist in Rococo Vienna who is “not pretty but talented,” as one of the characters describes her, can see again after a rather dubious medical treatment in Mademoiselle Paradis (Licht), from Austrian director Barbara Albert. There is, however, a catch: After the titular protagonist has regained her eyesight, her tinkling talents start to diminish rapidly. This adaptation of Alissa Walser’s novel Mesmerized is an inquisitive, curious and gorgeously accoutered period piece about science, the senses and the position of women in Mozart-era Austria. But it might have a thing or two too many on the brain to finally delve very deeply into each of its themes.
Nonetheless, this is the kind of poised filmmaking that festival audiences will want to see, so it is not a surprise to find it selected for the competitions of both the Toronto and San Sebastian festivals. Selling this as a theatrical item beyond German-speaking territories, however, will be more of a challenge.
The titular heroine, Maria Theresia Paradis (Maria Dragus), was 18 when she was taken in by Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer (Devid Striesow), both real historical figures that inspired Walser’s novel (the original German title of which roughly translates as the more poetic First There was the Night Music, though both titles are equivoques, of course). Maria Theresia, or Resi for short, was an admired player of the harpsichord and more than simply being proud of their daughter, her father, Joseph (Lukas Miko), and mother, Maria (Katja Kolm), are proud of her talent. Both understand that in cutthroat, high-society Vienna, there aren’t all that many options open to blind young women. And from the get-go, it is clear that especially Maria is a bit of a Rococo-era micro-momager, making sure her daughter makes the finest impression on everyone so she can get ahead in her life and career. In this context, their decision to have Resi live with a doctor whose new methods might cure her of one of her least appealing features is thus not all that surprising.
Dr. Mesmer worked in the field of animal magnetism, a theory that all animate beings have an invisible life force that can be manipulated with magnets and the laying on of hands. With his methods, he promised to cure Mademoiselle — throwing in some French words here and there was considered tres chic in German-speaking Vienna — Paradis of her blindness. For a while, and rather miraculously, he succeeded with Resi, lending the charlatan and his theories more credibility and feeding the man’s vainglorious hope of having his theories and methods recognized by the medical establishment and, bien sur, the all-important imperial court.
Albert and screenwriter Kathrin Resetarits make the decision to never judge Mesmer or suggest how it was possible that Resi did get her eyesight back. There is no sense that the doctor himself doesn’t buy his own bogus theories and techniques and he’s not out to make a quick Gulden. Indeed, he suggests to Resi’s parents they don’t have to pay if his treatment doesn’t work. In his exquisite, purple velvet outfit embroidered with blue and orange roses, the doctor looks quite the fop. And he’s certainly someone who is worried about his own position, future and career. But in this film, everyone in the capital’s upper class seems excessively worried about exactly that, so Mesmer isn’t unusual in his quest for fame and advancement. All this makes it hard to really get a handle on the character, as he’s a scientist completely in the wrong but also completely convinced he is right and the film seems to have no idea what to make of him.
The film’s titular protagonist is drawn more convincingly. Resi, first seen in a mesmerizing — pardon the pun — closeup of her face and still-empty eyes during a recital, is a young woman used to being blind and thus feeling and listening and smelling her way through the world. When, early on, she can suddenly see again, she goes throw a difficult adjustment period, with the fact she can simply see things gradually diminishing the importance of her other senses. This, in turn, affects her formerly virtuoso command of the harpsichord keys. Anchoring the young woman’s transformations is a multifaceted turn from Dragus (Graduation), who manages to make Paradis naive and maladroit but also passionate and driven even if she’s quite unsure where she might be headed in the future. The character’s many contradictions and uncertainties feel entirely organic in what’s one hell of a high-wire performance.
Albert does expertly suggest Resi’s use of the other senses, referring to what she’s smelling and showing how her hands and ears help her “see,” before her eyes can. But in Resetarits’ screenplay, there is no attempt to directly connect the changes Resi undergoes to an overall story arc, with the film never developing a strong narrative throughline on which to hang all of the film’s secondary ideas about gender, disabilities, class, science, music and mores. So the overall impact is finally quite diffuse, with various interesting ideas developed in a scattershot manner over the course of several, not necessarily connected scenes. This problem is especially obvious when comparing Mademoiselle Paradis to a film like Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou, set about 40 years later but also a German-language drawing-room drama that tackles complex issues, but does so with both the story and the themes constantly building on what has come before.
Without the performance of Dragus at its center, Mademoiselle Paradis might have fallen apart.
Production companies: NGF Geyrhalter Film, Looks Filmproduktionen
Cast: Maria Dragus, Devid Striesow, Lukas Miko, Katja Kolm, Maresi Riegner, Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg, Stefanie Reinsperger, Susanne Wuest, Christoph Luser
Director: Barbara Albert
Screenplay: Kathrin Resetarits, based on the novel Mesmerizedby Alissa Walser
Producers: Michael Kitzenberger, Wolfgang Widerhofer, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Markus Glaser, Martina Haubrich, Gunnar Dedio
Director of photography: Christine A. Maier
Production designer: Katharina Woeppermann
Costume designer: Veronika Albert
Editor: Niki Mossboeck
Casting: Lisa Olah
Sales: Films Distribution
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Platform)
In German, French
No rating, 97 minutes