Histrionic bordering on hysterical, “Mahler on the Couch” reduces one of 20th-century music’s greatest figures to a dithering cuckold, his marriage to a feeble feminist allegory, and Sigmund Freud to a Viennese sitdown comic. Written and directed by the German father-son team of Percy and Felix Adlon, this meeting of the minds between Mahler and Freud is a well-cast but emotionally cacophonous calamity that can’t decide if it wants to be comedy, tragedy or absurdist farce. Outside Europe (it opens July 7 in Germany), exposure may be limited to festivals; Americans’ unfamiliarity with the subject will limit even cable play.
The film does have a fabulous score, consisting of several works by Gustav Mahler (including part of his unfinished 10th Symphony), with erstwhile L.A. Philharmonic director Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. This may ameliorate some of the bad feeling engendered toward Mahler by the Adlons, and explain to the uninitiated why they should care about this balding, panicky, late-middle-aged eccentric.
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Conceived here as a sort of Teutonic Woody Allen, Mahler (Johannes Silberschneider, strong in a problematic role) is traveling by train through Europe to see Freud in Amsterdam. Why? Because his wife, Alma (Barbara Romaner) — historically, the succubus of fin de siecle European geniuses — is having an affair with architect Walter Gropius (Friedrich Mucke), and Mahler seeks the famed psychoanalyst’s counsel.
While Mahler is a terrific subject for a biopic, even a warped one (see Ken Russell’s “Mahler,” which took its own liberties and played fast and loose with symbolism), it’s Alma who’s the real star here. A well-born Viennese socialite, she was a notoriously liberated woman; had flirtations at various times with Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Alban Berg; and married Mahler, Gropius and writer Franz Werfel. The Adlons choose to concentrate on the Mahler marriage, which Alma entered into on the condition that she drop her own musical work and devote herself to Mahler. That he demanded this, and she acquiesced, is the moral-psychological point around which “Mahler on the Couch” revolves as it flashes back and forth between the Mahler-Freud sessions in Amsterdam and scenes from Mahler’s troubled marriage.
Mahler is 20 years older and consumed by work and ego; Alma is younger and lustier, and her appetites are fueled both by libido and resentment. The viewers may find Alma’s taste a bit deluded: Who’s the better catch, the composer of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony or the designer of the Pan Am building? No contest (although Gropius is better-looking).
Pic has a huge asset in Romaner, who is a sexy, intelligent force of nature throughout much of the film and makes her character sympathetic despite her cruelty to her husband. Even as the Adlons pay no heed to the social mores of 100 years ago (or even such profound facts as Mahler’s conversion from Judaism to Catholicism, to get hired at the Vienna Opera House), they have on their hands a female protagonist who needs very little encouragement to free herself from social strictures or her husband’s bed.
The character’s appeal, however, has less to do with any feminist message than with Romaner’s performance; it’s the actress’ fluency with pure passion that wins us over. Feeling that strong provides its own justification.
The discord running though “Mahler on the Couch” is about intent: The kind of swollen passion the Adlons want to portray — either between Mahler and Alma, or between Alma and the male sex — is persistently punctured by cheap comedy, mostly between Freud and Mahler, but elsewhere, too. It derails the attempts at seriousness throughout, yet since the film is never funny enough to be a real comedy, it has to be considered a strategic failure.
Production values, however, are top-notch; the music, naturally, but also the sound, and Benedict Neuenfels’ shooting.