A Cure For Wellness (2016)

A Cure For Wellness first published by Little White Lies

“Who the hell takes the waters in the twenty-first century anyway?”

The speaker is an executive in a New York financial firm whose CEO Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener) has gone AWOL to a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. On the eve of a merger worth billions, the company receives a letter from Pembroke in which he declares that he has seen the light, recognising at last the sickness of his past life, and that he has no intention of ever coming back. So the firm sends its most ambitious and driven deal closer, Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), to go fetch the boss.

If Lockhart’s journey begins in a modern steel-and-glass metropolis, he will soon be in the old world of Europe, in a remote castle that looks as though it is straight from a snow globe – or a gothic fairytale. In this Shangri-La that none of the elderly residents – all former corporate climbers and empire builders like Pembroke – shows any desire to leave,  Lockhart himself becomes stuck after a car accident. Left to wait for his leg to come out of its cast, Lockhart explores his environs, looks for Pembroke, and befriends ‘special case’ Hannah (Mia Goth), a girl who is apparently the only other patient in the place below retirement age. Yet as he succumbs to the water cure administered by charming Dr Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs) and his staff, Lockhart too is confronted with the vanities and traumas of his past, even as the place gradually reveals a dark history of its own. There is definitely something in the water…

All at once a mystery, a melodrama and a musing on mortality, Gore Verbinski’s latest film, A Cure For Wellness, blends high gothic with asylum thrills, as well as the director’s trademark in exquisitely mannered surrealism. There are so many intertexts here – the danse macabre of Suspiria or Livid, the unorthodox treatments (and ambiguous ending) of A Clockwork Orange, the universal monstrosity of Phantom of the Opera, Dracula and The Invisible Man, and most prominent of all, the embedded paranoia of Shutter Island (with DeHaan directly channeling Leonardo DiCaprio). Yet this old-fashioned world with its outmoded cures in fact encapsulates and distils our abiding twenty-first century aspirations and anxieties.

Right from its opening scene, in which a middle-aged businessman, working at night in his plush high-rise office, suddenly collapses from a heart attack, the film focuses on the obsession with money-making and the attainment of hierarchical status – in other words, the once American, now Globalised Dream – as a vain attempt to stave off the inevitability of death. The letter which Pembroke sends to the company may seem like the ravings of an old man who has lost his mind, but it is also a reasoned critique of every value towards which Lockhart and his colleagues have directed their lives. Yet the Alpine clinic, despite its constant promises of rejuvenation and wellness, is itself a kind of mausoleum, festooned with the symbols (sagging, decrepit flesh and rotting teeth) of memento mori – and its leadership is no less cutthroat, exploitative and ruthlessly vampiric than those heads of industry back in New York. Ancient or modern, some things never change, and the well-(h)eeled can no more be cured of their mortality than anyone else. In the end, as ever, youth wins out, however temporarily – but it is also smiling through false teeth as it, like everything and everyone, heads slowly downhill.

Anticipation: Always love Gore Verbinski’s way with visual weirdness.

Enjoyment: More mannerist surrealism for the mainstream.

In Retrospect: Exquisite gothic trappings, timeless fairytale grue, and several sips of mortality.

© Anton Bitel