Julian Hobbs, in his helming debut “Memoirs of My Nervous Illness,” fictionalizes a seminal case in the history of psychoanalysis — that of Daniel Paul Schreber, whose 1903 account of his own insanity inspired Freud, Jung and Lacan. At a time when documentaries are increasingly tackling the constructs of madness, Hobbs’ inspired feature sticks close to real-life texts, retaining Schreber’s disconcerting mix of Teutonic clarity and schizophrenic imaginings. Richly layered pic dramatizes a landmark doctor/patient showdown, chronicles a classic case of transgenderism and reveals how aspects of Schreber’s story prefigured Nazism. Package could lure cutting-edge arthouse auds.
Under Schreber’s (Jefferson Mays) voiceover memoirs, a series of stiffly posed, fragmented scenes portray his turn-of-the-century marriage, his appointment as high judge, the subsequent slow infiltration of madness and his incarceration in an insane asylum.
Unlike Freud, who saw in Schreber’s account a case history of homosexual repression and paranoia, Hobbs offers no single-stranded interpretation. Rather the multiple failed pregnancies of Schreber’s wife (Lara Milian), Schreber’s relationship to his father (Joe Coleman), and the dubious care given him by Dr. Emil Flechsig (Bob Cucuzza) are interwoven into the fabric of his delusions.
Recurring images of his wildly weeping wife and an overhead shot of Schreber lying beside her in bed writhing in imagined feminine orgasm mark the onset of his breakdown. Later, when he starts to fashion a dress out of his strait jacket and imagines he has been chosen by God to give birth to a new race of men, the earlier ambivalent visions of procreation and female sexuality resonate.
At the heart of the film is the escalating hostility between doctor and patient. Part of Schreber’s cosmic paranoia clearly derives from his punitive treatment at the hands of Dr. Flechsig, who is seen to be as threatened by Schreber’s sanity as he is by his insanity.
Flechsig’s desire to eradicate all deviation from the norm — including deviations from the norm of insanity — mirror Schreber’s father’s fanatical crusade to rid the body of all impurity, and echo in Schreber’s musings on the “vile course” Germany is on.
Thesping is brilliant throughout. May, in a variation of his Tony-winning role in “I Am My Own Wife,” makes Schreber’s lightning switches from coherence to screams and shouts as believably disconcerting as his sudden assumptions of seductive femininity. Cucuzza’s Flechsig channels Dr. Caligari without sacrificing contemporary technique.
Using sepia tones to achieve the look of daguerreotypes, with outdoor interludes in brilliant whites and acid greens, Hobbs’ depictions of Schreber’s hallucinations never assume cliched psychedelia. Rather they appear in patterns suggestive of an order more terrifying than mere chaos.
Tech credits are superlative. Kevin Lombard’s Super16 lensing imposes gravitas to Schreber’s wildest head-trips, while Donald DiNocola’s sound design transports Schreber’s desperate search for harmony into audio spheres.