Mesmer (1994)

“This young woman is in urgent need of the assistance of Franz Anton Mesmer!”

Mesmer must have had quite an influence on our culture for his name to enter our vocabulary. How many of us think of this obscure Viennese physician when we use the term ‘mesmerized’ ? And yet, to Mesmer’s many critics, that’s exactly what Mesmer did–he ‘mesmerized’ and victimized those who sought his help for various afflictions.

In the film Mesmer from director Roger Spottiswoode, with a screenplay by Dennis Potter, it’s eighteenth century Vienna. Franz Anton Mesmer (Alan Rickman) is married to a sour, wealthy widow, many years his senior. Her bitterness is a reflection of her disappointment in her husband who so far hasn’t managed to bring them any wealth through his revolutionary notions on animal magnetism. Marginalized by society, Mesmer experiments with those in the lunatic asylum, but he becomes notorious through his relationship with a beautiful blind noblewoman, Maria Theresa Paradies (Amanda Ooms).

The film plays with the idea that Mesmer did indeed possess strange powers, but these are largely shown as confidence, and the power of suggestion reinforced by his strong personality. The film also shows the root cause of Maria’s blindness to be psychological, and this is an interesting angle. After all, psychotherapy was still off in the future, and yet many eighteenth century women must have suffered from sexually related mental illnesses. Scenes depict the sort of hanky panky, which swept under the family tapestries could very well lead to psychophysiologic illness.

With some really cheesy lines, Mesmer is not a great film by any means, and it is entirely Rickman’s. Seen as a cult-like figure, he leads his followers into orgiatsic states. One of the more interesting aspects of the film is its depiction of Mesmer’s treatment at the hands of his peers. Treated as a fraud and a charlatan, the options of those seeking traditional care are not much better (Bring on the leeches, and let’s have a little blood-letting), and so Mesmer is seen as a threat to the established medical community and hence ostracized. There’s very little known about the last few years of Mesmer’s life, and this perhaps explains the film’s inconclusiveness. Still, if you are a fan of Rickman, or interested in the subject matter, it’s worth catching Mesmer. Just don’t expect anything earth shattering.

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