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Scattershot Disorder(s) in Rene Daalder’s Hysteria

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By Alex Brannan.

A quick search into the work of Rene Daalder yields an interesting array of artistic pieces varied in concept, medium, and scope. The writer, director, and digital effects artist has worked with various musical acts such as Devo and Supertramp. In his early days, he was a frequent collaborator with cinematographer and Speed director Jan de Bont. According to his website, he co-created the computer technology that helped win What Dreams May Come its Best Visual Effects Oscar in 1999. He created the online forum SpaceCollective, a place where “forward thinking terrestrials exchange ideas and information about the state of our species.” The site contains articles with titles like “Free will as nonlinear transformational effectiveness.”

Daalder did not pen this article, but it is a good example of what the director attempts to achieve in his 1997 film Hysteria (released on Blu-ray a few years ago). The film complicates notions of free thought, Jung’s collective unconscious, and the tensions between Capitalist and Socialist society. It is a disparate assemblage of thematic concepts laid over a mental patient thriller replete with B-movie trappings. All of this adds up to an abstract depiction of humanity as a malleable substance, a specimen for experimentation in which ideas such as hope, villainy, and free struggle to emerge.

51nACdyS-ILA psychiatrist, Dr. Samuel Fry (Michael Maloney), discharges his schizophrenic patient, Veronica Bloom (Emmanuelle Vaugier). She leaves in spite of both of their protests, so Fry drives her out to a secluded mental health facility. The hospital is run by an enigmatic and verbose pedant named Langston (Patrick McGoohan), for whose work Fry has an immense fondness. As such, Fry defers to Langston for Veronica’s care, only to find her personality change drastically following an impromptu brain surgery. From here, Fry’s stay at the hospital descends into chaos.

Within this chaos are examinations of a few disparate thematic concerns. Free-form sexual expression and a love triangle between Dr. Fry, Veronica, and wheelchair-bound dance enthusiast Myrna (Amanda Plummer) allows viewers to question where the boundary between inner and outer beauty lies. The permeability of identity that accompanies Dr. Langston’s medical experiments further questions whether this boundary truly exists, and, if it does, whether it means anything at all. This shifting of the definition of identity is a symptom of a hive mind, which brings to mind the notion of the collective unconscious. The film doesn’t explore this for its psychological effects, however, but instead aims to examine the more conscious human flaw of vanity. Fry ultimately faces conflict from two sources: the intellectual battle with Langston and the existential battle with Langston’s patients. In both cases, the strength of the individual mind is put in contest with the strength of the group mind. And in both cases, vanity is trumped by the will of the collective.

Of course, the film does not dress itself up in intellectual attire. These roaming themes are merely window dressing for a tepid psychological thriller. The idea of being trapped under someone else’s authority is common horror-thriller material, but the tension of such a situation in Hysteria is diffused by a meandering narrative with offbeat tangents. Often, the film pauses for lengthy pieces of macabre performance art involving sexually-charged dancing, beat poetry, or shadow play. Not to mention the monologuing, which flows from characters’ mouths like Marxist manifestos. McGoohan and Plummer make delightfully ham-filled meals out of them, but they lend themselves to a tone that is difficult to take seriously.

Hysteria 01As with many genre films dealing with mental health, Hysteria presents generalized debilitation as more important to the plot than any accurate representation of psychological disorder. Clumsily, the film strings patients’ disorders together, so that characters share various symptoms and ailments. While a promising idea in theory, the lack of an accurate psychological foundation for any one character’s diagnosis creates an obtuse, misshapen view of mental health that is ultimately too problematic.

All of this is to say that Hysteria has only one foot in reality and its head in the clouds. Daalder throws so much on the screen that reason fails to measure what his intentions are. The sporadic plot is matched with sporadic themes that weave together into a noisy mesh of insanity. This is a good match for the film’s central locale, but it does not necessarily make for engaging cinema. It is fun to see McGoohan and Plummer chew scenery left and right, and witnessing Maloney’s Dr. Fry descend further into madness as the insanity around builds. Otherwise, Daalder’s vision is an unwieldly mess of heady concepts not equipped to bear their weight.

Alex Brannan is a freelance writer and critic. He publishes criticism at Cinefiles Reviews and can be found on Letterboxd and Twitter @TheAlexBrannan.

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