'A Cure for Wellness' & Going Full Gothic
Last week I wrote about how Guillermo Del Toro's Crimson Peak continued the traditional values and connotations of the Gothic Romance genre and ushered it into a modern mindset through the use of sex and violence, and how these elements are utilised. But what happens when a film follows the classical Gothic checklist to the letter? What if a film infused itself with so much of the Gothic DNA that it could sit side-by-side with texts from centuries and decades gone? With time passing and tastes changing, would that film even be considered good? Well let's have a look. This is A Cure for Wellness.
*From here on there be spoilers. You've been warned*
Directed by Gore Verbinski, 2016's A Cure for Wellness tells the story of Dane Dehaan's Lockhart, an arrogant and narrow-minded businessman on the verge of a big promotion in the city. When the company he works for suffers a disaster, he's tasked with finding the company's CEO in order for them to pass blame and for him to take up his rightful place. However, upon visiting the 'wellness center' that CEO Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener) is staying at up in the Swiss Alps, he's involved in a car accident that extends his stay and leads to the center's chief, Dr. Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs) taking a particular interest in him.
Written by Justin Haythe and based on a short story by him and Verbinski, it's obvious from the start that the film has no shortage of atmosphere. By opening on a death in the confines of a law firm in New York City, Verbinski replaces the Gothic archetypes of castles and gateways with skyscrapers and technology. He looms across the skyline and gazes up at the giant concrete monoliths throughout the film's opening credits with a familiar sense of grandeur, the likes of which haven't been expanded upon since David Fincher's titles for Panic Room. This extends too later on, with tracking shots of Lockhart's train journey to the Alps. All of this feels dark and insular despite the scale of proceedings...but the moment we're shown a glimpse of the wellness center itself we're shown his faltering phone signal. Slowly all the comforts of modern technology are stripped away and allow the gorgeous gothic landscape (Hohenzollern Castle in Germany) to take hold. This technophobic theme harkens back to the work of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley in their pivotal works for the Gothic.
The wellness center itself exists on the castle grounds of an old, ruthless dictator (Baron Von Reichmerl) who struggled to maintain a clean family bloodline by attempting to incestuously impregnate his sister. Unfortunately, her infertility stood in his way, and the center was in fact built as a scientific establishment to find a cure for her infertility, before becoming the wellness center. At first it's a paradise. Filled with sunlight, wide open spaces and gorgeous views (Ari Aster's Midsommar festivities spring to mind whilst gazing upon the center's grounds) whilst the insides consist of long, winding corridors and medicinal-green tiles.
It's made abundantly clear that things aren't quite as perfect as they seem. The staff perpetually intake droplets of liquid from weird blue vials wrapped around their necks, and Dr. Volmer seems to have an unhealthy obsession with young patient Hannah (the aptly-named Mia Goth). This is all drip-fed to the audience slowly, and the film's two-and-a-half hour runtime means that it's not always an easy ride. A Cure for Wellness features little-to-no action, with the cinematography and camera movements, whilst absolutely beautiful by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, mostly consisting of slow pans and static shots. Much like classical Gothic Literature, it has no need for the audience's attention. In fact, it dares them to stay active, much like Lockhart, in order to find out what's going on. Upon release, the film was criticised in particular for its narrative, with many calling the film 'hollow', but I believe that this is a misinterpretation of the foreign-feeling A Cure for Wellness encumbers. It often feels like these films don't exist anymore. Ones that aren't afraid to alienate their audience in order to put them in the protagonists' shoes. It's this slow and purposeful presentation that separates it from Del Toro's Crimson Peak.
Of course, slow storytelling does not a Gothic story make. Whilst it has atmosphere in abundance, Verbinski and co. realise that the tension needs to be released, and he does so through the use of...eels. Yes. Eels. The wellness center is built upon a reservoir of eels that thrive in the water below, and their intrusion of Lockhart's isolation-therapy within a water tank presents the first overwhelming evidence that something's wrong with the water. The staff are tight-lipped of course, and the patients themselves all sing praises for the center's hydrotherapy treatments (except for Celia Imrie's Victoria Watkins, who supplies heavy background information piece-by-piece to Lockhart). Meanwhile Hannah and Lockhart begin to dance around the idea of romance, before a trip to the local village outside the center sabotages Dr. Volmer's lenient nature. Patients aren't allowed to leave, and seeing as Lockhart is now a patient (whether he likes it or not) he will partake in treatments and stay on the grounds just like everyone else. Oh, and he should keep drinking the water too...
There's a Lovecraftian element to the center and its workings behind closed-doors, and not just because of the eels. Slowly as Lockhart becomes disillusioned with his ideas of the center, he succumbs to the treatments. The sense of paranoia and slipping sanity is bolstered by the film's pacing as well as a few standout scenes (including a harrowing dental operation). Hannah is locked away by Volmer as Lockhart learns the truth... that he is in fact the Baron, having gained everlasting life from the medicine in the water. The patients themselves are used to manufacture the liquid in the blue bottles, as eels are fed into their stomachs and act as a filtration system. Hannah is the Baron's daughter, the offspring of the experiments from years ago that he desires to continue his bloodline and reinstate his family.
So for those of us keeping check: elegant, foreign location? Check. Mysterious secret? Check. Dwindling sanity? Check. Supernatural twist? Check.
Like Crimson Peak, A Cure for Wellness incorporates an incestuous subplot into its climax as the Baron aims to impregnate his daughter. Hannah's innocence signifies the trappings of her father, and it's only when she discovers her feelings for Lockhart that she becomes fertile, and thus a decision is thrust upon her. The third act itself dwells in its lavish Gothicism. As the Baron's staff cloak-up and perform a grand ball worthy of Anna Karenina, Lockhart travels into the underground tunnels below the castle. Dark brickwork and wax-covered candelabras are abound, alongside extravagant oil paintings and a twisted laboratory where the Baron conducted his research.
All of this feels earned. By this point the audience have put together the information and watch as Lockhart does battle with the Baron - whose skin has transgressed into an eel-like texture thanks to decades of his cure. It's this point where the film tends to lose people. It's understandable of course, but to go the extra mile by turning the Baron into a literal monster tickles every one of my fancies so I'm always on board.
And as the center burns to the ground, the orchestral soundtrack flourishes in a grandiose display of cathartic destruction - allowing Lockhart to return to his life of technology. One that, due to the lavish skyscrapers and lies of his co-workers, might not be too different after all (subtext baby!).
I still have no idea why Dane Dehaan smiling at the end is so creepy though...
It feels as though we shouldn't have got A Cure for Wellness. Made for $40 Million, the film was a box-office bomb, and it's not difficult to see why. The fact that that budget was put together for this project in the first place seems like a miracle (bare in mind this is an original, slow-burn, horror epic).
There's something operatic about it all. From Dane Dehaan's severely-unlikable protagonist to the joy it seemingly takes it toying with the audience, A Cure for Wellness may not be the first thing you think of when asked about modern Gothic films. But it's one of the most recent examples I can think of where a film has tonally captured the essence of a genre without adhering to modern techniques (fast editing etc.). Maybe I'm wrong? I might be. But if you disagree that's fine. If you're yet to see it: a) why have you just read a bunch of spoilers ya dingus, b) if these spoilers haven't dissuaded you, I'd recommend checking the film out. It's unlike almost anything currently being released...whether that's good or bad.
I like doing these explorations/analyses of films/television shows from time to time. If you have a certain show or film or text you'd be interested in hearing my thoughts on, or if you'd be interested in contacting me about potential writing work then give me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to hear what you think.
A Cure for Wellness is available now on Blu Ray & DVD.
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