A Cure for Wellness:
a good story wasted
Inspired by Mann’s Magic Mountain, this movie fails to deliver its legacy
By Luc Archambault
A Cure for Wellness is directed by Gore Verbinski, who previously shot the first three films of the Pirates of the Caribbean saga (2003, 2006, 2007), the first adaptation of The Ring (2002), as well as the much-maligned Lone Ranger (2013). It stars Dane DeHaan as Lockhart, the excellent Jason Isaacs as doctor Heinrich Volmer, and Mia Goth as Hannah.
The premise: Lockhart, an executive working for a New-York based financial company, has to travel to Switzerland in order to persuade Mr. Pembroke, a high-ranking CEO, to approve the sale of the business. Pembroke is undergoing treatment in a peculiar spa facility from which patients refuse to leave. The treatments they receive are considered to be ‘miraculous’. Lockhart, pressed to take back his superior, is injured in a car accident, and is hospitalized in this strange sanatorium. The director, Dr. Volmer, advises him to relax and enjoy the range of therapies offered at the spa so his broken leg can heal properly.
As the treatments progress, Lockhart starts to hallucinate and falls victim to an ever-growing paranoia. He is diagnosed as raving mad by Volmer and is forcibly interned. Lockhart resigns himself to internment and learns from another patient that the castle in which the spa is located was owned by a mad baron who wished for an heir of the purest blood. The baron thus married his own sister, who seemed to be sterile. He then started experimenting on the local peasants, but they rebelled and destroyed the castle. After having captured the baron’s sister/spouse, they discovered that she was pregnant, and tore out the baby from her womb.
Lockhart then painfully discovers that the doctor uses eels, injected into patients’ bodies, to obtain an elixir enabling him to remain forever young… because the good doctor is in fact the baron, very much alive. A young woman named Hannah, whom Lockhart met while exploring the castle investigating this sordid affair, is in fact the baron’s daughter. She remains at a pubescent age owing to her father’s elixir. She falls in love with Lockart, and this will bring about the final confrontation and the castle’s downfall.
Visually, this is a magnificent film. Shot on location at the Hohenzollern castle in Bisingen, as well as two other German medieval cities, it all breathes opulence. But its weakness lies in its script. It starts well enough, as a modern adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain). A noteworthy detail: in one scene, one of the spa’s employees is seen reading this very novel. But as soon as the baron/doctor Volmer’s background is revealed, the story topples into a quagmire of a mess, where fantasy/horror now takes the high road. From about the midway point up to the finale, with a vitriolic aftertaste that evokes early death, it is as if the director had lost all control on this story, which showed so much promise at its beginning.
Because a modernization of Der Zauberberg, along the lines drawn at the beginning of the film, would have been masterful. Even the addition of the treatment by eels would have been welcome. But the “Grand-Guignolesque” vision of Verbinski only resulted in tainting his brilliant cinematography. Even the inspired acting of the three main protagonists is lost in the meanderings of this waste of time (this film lasts for an extreme lenght of 2 hours and 26 minutes, almost an hour too long!). Too bad, because such an apt criticism on today’s society, on the cleavage between rich and poor, between indolence and waste, could have transported this production to join the ranks of cult films.
Images : 20th Century Fox
Writer and journalist, globe-trotter at heart, passionate about movies, music, literature and contemporary dance, came back to Montreal to pursue his unrelenting quest for artistic meaning.