Physician, eel thyself

I’d been curious to see A CURE FOR WELLNESS since it came out in the benighted year of 2016 but not curious enough to, you know, see it. But it’s on Netflix now so I finally did.

First impressions from the trailer confirmed: it’s a very handsome film. It was shot by Gore Verbinski’s regular guy, Bojan Bazelli and designed by Eve Stewart, who does Tom Hooper’s films, which I dislike on sight but which undeniably always have “a look.”

It didn’t scare me, but it sometimes repelled me, and I have a fairly strong stomach, being Scottish. There’s some dental abuse, done with ECU CGI relish, but it was nowhere near as disturbing as MARATHON MAN’s famous (drill) bit, which made do purely with terrific performances, creepy pacing, disturbing angles and surprisingly Pinterish dialogue. No magnified teeth were needed.

What’s with the eels? There’s an explanation of sorts, but it’s strangely unimpressive. I find I’m not as disturbed by eels as Verbinski and his team want me to be. They’re good and repellent in THE TIN DRUM, writhing from a horse’s head washed up on a beach. Even when they’re administered orally to the film’s anti-hero (Dane DeHaan, whose character — a shitweasel of the first water — I never liked, but whose performance was rather admirable — I hope his career continues) in a passably revolting moment, they didn’t really bother me. Maybe the CGI effect is to blame: the prosthetic beasts laid out in an alchemist’s lab seemed more upsetting. Things with real textures have more power.

The film is damn long — on the one hand, I appreciated the measured pace for its novelty, on the other hand I found the intrigue at the spa insufficiently intriguing, the revelations not startling enough, so it dragged a bit.

I believe we can trace this one back a long way. Back in 1999, Verbinski was fired from the cannibal romp RAVENOUS. Antonia Bird took his place in a hurry and turned out an entertainingly daft thriller. Maybe my favourite of her films, since I don’t respond too well to social realism, and I always found fault with her camera choices — whirling round an embracing couple with the sun flaring into the lens; close-up on hands clenching together in a sex scene, cliches not wholly redeemed by the novelty of the same-sex relationship portrayed (the film is PRIEST). It’s a shame the film that impressed me most was a relatively impersonal one, and had AB’s life not been cut so tragically short I’m sure she’d have made something I could honestly love.

Verbinski gave some interview somewhere about having wanted to make of RAVENOUS “a modern ROSEMARY’S BABY,” which is baffling, considering that the eventual movie was so essentially just a bit of gory froth. But with WELLNESS (rubbish title: wants to sound sinister but just sounds bland), he’s done his best to fulfill that early ambition. The slow pace; the accretion of details that largely spells out the plot for us but leaves us wondering if it’s all in the mind; the conspiracy and the supernatural history and all that.

[THIS IS ALL WRONG: SEE COMMENTS!]

But the exotic look of it robs it of the quasi-realism that makes Polanski’s film of Ira Levin’s novel so creepy. I just didn’t believe in the film’s world. There’s no credible reason, after all, for the isolation tank, setting for a major eel attack, to be the size of a reactor cooler. The locations are stunning, and their reality does help the film, but it all feels far more like a fairy tale than a psychological thriller, and fairy tales are usually short and speedy rather than prolonged and lugubrious. I can’t prove that Verbinski’s approach couldn’t have worked, I can only attest that for me it didn’t work.

But it’s a gorgeous looking film, and the bigger-than-usual-for-this-sort-of-thing budget lifts it out of the regular categories, even though that’s kind of regrettable because the movie’s underperformance probably cost us Del Toro’s AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS.

8 Responses to “Physician, eel thyself”

  1. I think you might be confusing Gore Verbinski with Milcho Manchevski as the original director of Ravenous.

  2. Crikey — there goes the thesis!

  3. woolworthdiamond Says:

    My problem with the title is its proximity to Road to Wellville, doubly worse for being similarly set at a sanitarium. It’s that problem of looking at the title and having to separate which is which.

  4. Yes, I get that too. I think they were hoping to create a creepy effect with two positive words that cancel each other out, but it comes off sounding bland. Oddly enough, Cure by itself is a creepy word and a great title for a great Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie.

  5. I rather liked Ravenous, especially for the score. Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman might seem an unlikely pair, but their work is excellent.

  6. Yes, that was really good, and I like to believe Bird brought them together. She did cast Albarn in Face, her crime film, which I really hated. .

  7. doesn’t seem to be on Netflix at the moment

  8. Maybe only UK?

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