A strung-out doctor with writer’s block takes inspiration, among other things, from a beautiful female patient who’s a compulsive diarist in the intense and harrowing period drama “Opium: Diary of a Madwoman.” With its gallery of surgical tools that makes the kit in “Dead Ringers” look like pick-up sticks, and a fearlessly physical perf from Norwegian thesp Kirsti Stubo, pic’s distinctive blend of implied horror and arthouse gravitas will propel it to high-profile fest berths and specialized biz.
It’s 1913, and well-meaning medicos at a remote institution for disturbed women still “cure” the more extreme cases through primitive lobotomies that drive metal spikes through the eyeball into the brain.
Seeking refuge from his crippling creative doldrums and secret morphine addiction, decadent Dr. Jozsef Brenner (Ulrich Thomsen) arrives to score free drugs under the guise of psychoanalytic study. His newfangled methods are frowned upon by clinic director Moravcsik (Zsolt Laszlo), whose collection of bizarre medical equipment would tax the Marquis de Sade’s imagination.
One patient quickly attracts his attention. Gizella Klein (Stubo) is convinced a devil wants to consume her: “The evil one is constantly rummaging around in me,” she writes. In fact, she’s filled dozens of thick diaries and much of the available wall space in her room with such florid, frenzied ramblings about possession and control; though professional, Brenner’s admiration for her profligacy soon curdles into jealousy and lust.
Bulk of the pic balances the sad journeys of the patient, who begs him to “remove my brain,” and doctor, both revulsed and fascinated, with formidable mounting sexual tension. Their forbidden attraction finally consummated in a strenuous act of passion, the remorseful yet ruthless Brenner figures out a way to simultaneously ease Gizella’s pain while revitalizing his writing career.
Pic is based on the unfinished diary of Hungary’s first acclaimed neurologist, Geza Csath (pen name of a Dr. Jozsef Brenner), whose work also inspired vet helmer Janos Szasz’ award-winning 1997 murder saga “The Witman Boys.”
Whether pleasuring herself with a pencil, writhing uncontrollably under observation or simply staring into space, Stubo tackles Gisella with formidable intensity. Thomsen, whose international career took off with “The Celebration,” sells the cold-eyed immorality of the repulsive Brenner with steely skill.
Tech credits are top-shelf, highlighted by designer Geza Szollosy’s period-inspired medical paraphernalia; tools and machines look horrible just lying around, let alone in use. Pic was shot in northern Hungarian locations, including a fortress-like monastery used as a Jewish detention center during World War II.