Opium: Diary of a Madwoman is a uniquely unpleasant and difficult film to watch. It is slow-paced and more than a few scenes are difficult to view without looking away.
The film is also a brilliant character study of two individuals in a mutually exploitative relationship. It explores big ideas and is morally ambiguous.
Gizella is a beautiful, young woman with pale skin who was committed to a mental institution while her mother dies of TB. She thinks the devil is trying to slowly possess her body and her defense mechanism is to write obsessively. This irks the staff of the asylum, mostly Catholic nuns, who try taking away her pencils and notebooks (she has already filled dozens and dozens of large notebooks with her scribbling). She’s allegedly a brilliant writer, although every time we see her writing, she looks incoherent and seems to be writing gibberish.
Dr. Brenner takes a job in the asylum as a means of acquiring morphine to satisfy his growing addiction. He takes a liking to Gizella (and vice versa), attracted by her virginal innocence, beauty and writing. The relationship soon, like his morphine addiction becomes too much for him to bear. That is where the movie really gets explosive.
The film is set in World War I era Hungary and the cinematography is shot with a yellow tint to the scenes. It gives it a stale, bleak view that sets the mood of the film. As you can surely imagine, medical care in 1910s Eastern Europe left more than a little do be desired – especially in an insane asylum, where the medical treatment is so experimental it makes A Clockwork Orange look like a routine physical.
Dr. Brenner, played masterfully by Ulrich Thomsen, is a very complex character. Disapproving of the manner in which the asylum’s director treats the inmates, he could be the moral center of the film (and at times is), but he still grapples with his addictions and other assorted demons.
Kirsti Stubo plays Gizella, whose vulnerability forces her to fall for the troubled Brenner. Her future is so helpless that being drawn to Brenner is her only mechanism for coping with the conditions inside the institution. Stubo’s performance is brilliant. She perfectly captures the despair and minimal optimism her character demands in each scene.
One the surface, Opium would seem like a sadistic and pornographic film but it never approves of the pain – the camera only documents it and the nudity and sex scenes are hardly arousing but necessary to building the depth for the characters (particularly Brenner).
The graphic depiction of lobotomies will ensure that this is a movie you won’t soon be forgetting but the depth of the characters and the great acting performances from Thomson and Stubo will keep you thinking about the film and grappling with the issues of lust/love and good/evil that it raises.