THE late Dennis Potter (Pennies From Heaven,) was something of an artistic specialist in nasty ironies, so it makes a bitter kind of sense that Mesmer, the movie of the last of his screenplays to be produced before he died, should be the victim of one. The lead, Alan Rickman, gives the star-making performance to blanch out once and for all his reputation as primarily a great screen villain (the elegant terrorist in Die Hard, the lethally tantrummy Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). The director, Roger Spottiswoode, has achieved Hollywood commercial coronation with the latest James Bond movie, but Mesmer is arguably his greatest film. The screenplay is a far finer memorial to Potter than the two teleplays Karaoke and Cold Lazarus (shown here on cable last June), which, knowing he was dying as he wrote them, he intended to stand as his epitaph. But you can't see the film in this country.
Or in Potter, Rickman, and Spottiswoode's home country of England, or, indeed, anywhere except in Canada, where it won Rickman the Best Actor prize when it was screened at the 1994 Montreal Film Festival. Legal squabbles over the finished film have held up its distribution elsewhere and ensured that this hermetic, difficult, willfully underdramatized and peculiarly brilliant movie -- a masterpiece in its way -- remains almost unknown. Surely some innovative U.S. distributor can be persuaded to free Mesmer from its Canadian captivity. If the intrinsic merit of the film is not argument enough for it, then the performance turned in by Alan Rickman, an actor with a big small public, should allay qualms about ticket sales, at least in U.S. art houses.
Potter died, in 1994, of pancreatic cancer (in his last television interview he swigged liquid morphine from a flask), but the disease that tormented, humiliated, and defined him was psoriatic arthropathy. Potter fans will be familiar with this unsavory combination of flaking skin and aching joints from The Singing Detective, to whose novelist hero Potter gave the same symptoms. When he wasn't having hallucinations in which his doctors and acquaintances lip-synced to popular songs from the past, Marlow (Michael Gambon) lay in his hospital-ward bed, spiteful and ashamed, and spit bile at the world.
had a Freudian happy ending, and Mesmer has a Freudian unhappy ending, but that's about all that links them. Even among Potter's odd later works Mesmer is an oddity. It's set in the eighteenth century rather than the grungy present; its hero is an aristocrat (if only by marriage) and a doctor rather than a patient; there's almost no humor, black or otherwise; nobody bursts into song. Still, we hear the voice of Marlow, and of Daniel Feeld (Albert Finney plays, in what must be a deliberate mordant pun, Potter's Feeld) from Karaoke, and of Potter himself, when Mesmer muses on "our inner rage at sickness."
The historical Franz Anton Mesmer appears to have been one of those intriguing premodern types that were half crank and half genius. (Newton, when he wasn't working out the laws of physical reality, practiced alchemy.) He
thought he had found in the body a mysterious magnetic force that could be rebalanced from illness to health, and in fact he may have been on to something: recent medical research indicates that in some cases magnets can relieve pain in post-polio patients. But he is credited with discovering the use of hypnotism as a therapeutic tool. Where his contemporaries purged and leeched, he played the glass harmonica (actually a keyboard instrument with water jars instead of strings) to soothe his patients, murmured suggestions to them, stroked their auras. Apparently he had both the commanding personality and the hypnotic talent to effect at least some temporary psychological change. Mesmer was histrionic, vain, and given to braggadocio, but he seems never to have been a complete fraud. (An examining panel that included Benjamin Franklin concluded that "some great force acts upon and masters the patients [and] appears to reside in the magnetiser.") To his peers in the medical establishment, however, Mesmer was an opportunist and a fake, and they got him thrown out of Vienna. Fetching up at the court of Louis XVI, he not only kept his head through the French Revolution but finished out his days on a pension from Napoleon.
This wily survivor is not the man Potter was interested in. He wanted to tell the story of an innovative genius misunderstood and persecuted. This is an old story, much beloved of Hollywood, and Mesmer would be trivial, familiar stuff if Potter, Spottiswoode, and Rickman didn't keep turning the clichés inside out. On the surface Mesmer is about its scorned hero's cure of a beautiful young woman (Amanda Ooms) who has been blind for fifteen years. Her father, it turns out, has been sexually assaulting her, but Mesmer works what can only, in spite of its discretion, be called an erotic cure -- talking caressingly to her and even stroking her -- and her sight returns. She just hadn't wanted to see!
At this point moviegoers may find themselves thinking of John Huston's Freud, in which Montgomery Clift, eyes popping with the strain of looking for the truth, struggles against the prejudices of a later Vienna. Freud is a formulaic triumph tale: the pioneering psychoanalyst wins in the end because truth is on his side -- and not only truth but science. Oddly, in view of his reputation, Freud is held up in the movie as a champion of the scientific method. He is superior to his fellows because he has the courage to follow the evidence wherever it leads, whereas they fall by the wayside, struck down by their own prejudices and fears. Mesmer stands the formula on its head. The audience is still meant to be on the hero's side (we're cued by the fact that Mesmer is the only doctor in the film who shows any compassion for suffering). But now science and rationality are the enemies.
THE past few years have seen the release of two other films that deal with medicine in the eighteenth century, Kenneth Branagh's remake of Frankenstein and the Alan Bennett-scripted The Madness of King George. With Mesmer they form a sort of AIDS-era trilogy about purging and bloodshed and awful experiments that torture where they're meant to cure. (Eighteenth-century medical practices were so horrific that one book on the subject is titled The Age of Agony.) The 1931 (still the best) Frankenstein movie came out of a reaction against the First World War -- the frightful battlefield mutilations that, with improved surgical techniques, men now survived; the sense that technology had betrayed society; outrage at the carnage to which the smug social and political ideas of the nineteenth century had led. Like the rulers of Europe, Dr. Frankenstein wanted to play God -- and the moviemakers punished him for it (in the film's original ending the monster killed him). But in the 1994 film Branagh's doctor is a Promethean figure, willing to go to any lengths to ease suffering, though in spite of his idealism, he destroys what he means to help. The Madness of King George takes the patient's point of view rather than the doctor's, as the poor, gentle King is tormented by a bunch of quacks who not only have no idea what his illness is (it is now thought to have been porphyria rather than psychosis) but have a fine old time subjecting his body to various painful humiliations. Bennett's script is strange, with a creepy sadomasochistic undercurrent. But it speaks to anyone who has ever thought his doctor was a fool.