A Star-Making Performance

Mesmer, the story of an eighteenth-century healer, still doesn't have a U.S. distributor. But Alan Rickman's acting in the title role is inspired.

Jas Lehal / Reuters

The late Dennis Potter (Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective) 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 lipsynced to popular songs from the past, Marlow (Michael Gambon) lay in his hospital-ward bed, spiteful and ashamed, and spit bile at the world.

The Singing Detective 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 cliches 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.

Potter must have been at the top of that list. There is something particularly humiliating about a persistent disease that not only lacks the decency to kill the patient but has embarrassing symptoms as well. Any illness strips away dignity, but a nonfatal, messy one finally denies the sufferer any sympathy. He becomes a bore. His doctor is the only person he can possibly hope to talk frankly to, and all the doctor does is come up with one remedy after another that doesn't work.

To the patient, his sickness is a narrative—it has a beginning, a middle, and (he hopes) an end; recurring characters; moral tests; mood and suspense; mystery and drama. Unfortunately, this rich story is incommunicable. Doctors and friends who ask to hear it aren't quite able to; they make up their own stories in its place. In the end illness is a secret that will not be told. Not for nothing did Virginia Woolf call her (psychological) disease “the dumb horror.”

Spottiswoode and his production designer, Jan Schlubach, create a subtly unsettling eighteenth century. It takes a while to figure out, among all the sumptuous clothes and huge, beautiful houses, exactly what is striking the wrong note. Finally you realize it's that nearly all the interiors seem stained—walls are dirty white, wan gold, body-fluid yellow. Everything's the color of old, soiled bandages, and the light in the high-ceilinged rooms is muted, as if by some miasma. The whole civilization is diseased. There are very few bright colors in Mesmer, and these are almost always the natural green of leaves or lawns. In one of our first views of Mesmer, he is scurrying along in a little garden maze of dark-green boxwood, struggling to explain his theories to an indifferent fellow physician.

“Superstition and religious enthusiasm have been purged from the Queen of Sciences,” his associate tells Mesmer. Mesmer pouts; he sighs; he rallies round and insists grandly, "I have made a discovery that will lift pain, misery, and disharmony from our burdened frames." Rickman is always a strong screen presence, but he's hard to classify. You can relegate most actors either to the string section or to the brass, but Rickman somehow combines a dark, sonorous tone with something haunting and faraway, as if he'd mixed a cello with a French horn. His specialty is fusing opposing traits: he's mannered yet honest, too much yet reserved, bored and curious, high-strung and animal-still. This sort of complexity isn't always useful to an actor, but it's invaluable in roles that call for genius or mysticism. And certainly Rickman has all the equipment required to play Mesmer: charisma, intelligence, sensuality, pride, and what one critic called “the face of a Magus”—anachronistic features that make him look at home in an earlier century. (He made his reputation in a play with an eighteenth-century setting, Les Liaisons Dangereuses.)

Rickman has spent the bulk of his movie career being brilliant in supporting parts that don't need brilliance; he must have realized the opportunity he had in the role of Mesmer, because he tears into it. He's not just brilliant here; he's great, bold to the point of folly: the performance constantly—breathtakingly—flirts with the overwrought and the ludicrous. Rickman keeps making outrageous choices and forcing the audience to believe them through sheer force of personality. And yet, beneath the arrogance and theatricality there's something artistically modest, almost shy. The purpose of acting isn't display but to “give it away,” Rickman once told an interviewer. “Throw it to the audience. Catch!” This generosity edges his extremes with grace and makes them work.

In some ways the genius-charlatan-shaman Mesmer is similar to the role of Rasputin, for which Rickman won an Emmy in 1996. But Rasputin was a primitive, and Rickman wasn't able to use one of his most valuable assets, his feral wit. He doesn't use it enough in Mesmer either, actually (he really should get the chance to do more comedy), but at least he gets to demonstrate the confusion that can assail a man of sophisticated intelligence. He keeps flipping the character over, from sardonic superiority to clumsy bewilderment, from pompous dramatizing to defeated weariness, from the showy to the withdrawn. Mesmer is never able to settle into one attitude, because wherever he finds himself, the key to ending suffering is somewhere else. He often appears to be listening, as if trying to discern beneath the racket of the commonplace some melody that sings of health.

This Mesmer—the creature of Potter and Spottiswoode as well as of Rickman—is an intuitive groping through a world of barren rationality. It's easy to get soft-minded about this approach to medicine and end up in some New Age intellectual spa where feeling is everything and only the quacks survive. But the movie undercuts its own sentimentality. As written, Mesmer fails at everything, even being a scam artist, and Rickman and Spottiswoode have given the character a painful, thwarted quality. He has some sense of the truth, but he's living in a culture that provides no way to tell it except the suspect language of the mountebank or the mystic. Rickman is an almost fiendishly articulate actor, but he convinces you that fundamentally, where it most matters to him, Mesmer is without words.

In one scene an unsympathetic Mesmer is engaged to cure a young aristocrat: when the man opens his mouth, he reveals that his problem is that he has a voice like a Munchkin. Mesmer is simultaneously Oz the Great and Terrible and the little man behind the curtain, half doubting his own tricks, half believing they're not tricks. Rickman handles this aspect of the character so subtly that it's almost impossible to tell what Mesmer actually thinks of himself. As originally released, the movie contained a scene that answered the question: we saw the boy Mesmer alone on top of a crag, his ear pressed to the earth, listening as if it were possible to eavesdrop on the secrets of the universe. Those familiar with Potter's work will recognize the image as a twin of the scene in The Singing Detective in which the young Marlow sits high up in a tree in an Edenic forest, just about to spy in the distance his adulterous mother and her lover, and tumble into the world of sin. In their wisdom, the editors of the video version of Mesmer have removed this scene (you get a passing glimpse of the boy), and along with it a good chunk of the film's comprehensibility.

This stupidity probably wouldn't have surprised Potter. As a screenwriter, he must have learned that even if he succeeded in getting his story on paper in a way that bore some connection to how he imagined it, he still had to watch out that no one "improved" it into being even further away from what he wanted to say. But the director of this movie is on Potter's side. Spottiswoode has understood that Mesmer is both Potter the artist and Potter the patient, the man struggling to tell a story, whose art is finally his illness, and whose illness is art.