NR | 87 min | David Rühm | Austria | 2014
While it’s touted as horror-comedy, Therapy for a Vampire is neither horrifying nor laugh-out-loud funny, although it certainly has moments of more subtle humor. The film is, however, a visually beautiful invocation of the classic horror tradition and a provocative exploration of the role of art and fantasy in both human and vampire lives.
Therapy is set in 1932 Vienna and centers on two couples—one human and one vampire—whose lives meet in the office of Dr. Sigmund Freud (Karl Fischer). Aspiring artist, Viktor (Dominic Oley), works for Freud, drawing his patients’ dreams. The problem is that every time Viktor draws a woman, he draws the same woman—his girlfriend, Lucy (Cornelia Ivancan), except in his renderings her hair is always long and blonde (not dark and in a bun) and she wears make-up (when in actuality she never does) and a skirt (not trousers). Lucy is an independent woman whom Viktor tries to turn into someone else every chance he gets.
One day Viktor leaves his latest painting of Lucy at Freud’s office, and when Count Geza von Közsnöm (Tobias Moretti) arrives for a therapy session about his life of endless boredom, he sees the painting of Lucy and recognizes (he thinks) his long-lost love, Nadila. He pursues Lucy with the intent of turning her into Nadila—or, from his perspective, helping Lucy become who she really is. (Lucy sees it differently!)
The ensuing comedy of manners is compounded by the Count’s wife, Elsa von Közsnöm (Jeannette Hain), who has her own problems with being a vampire—notably she has forgotten what she looks like since she is unable to see herself in a mirror. Consequently, she pursues Viktor, compelling him to paint her. She is delighted with the result, but, of course, the painting is only another painting of his fantasy of Lucy.
Filmed in Vienna, Therapy is notable for its stunning sets, both interior and exterior. The acting is all accomplished—if light and breezy and not particularly demanding, although I have to single out Cornelia Ivancan who is brilliant as Lucy. The film is certainly entertaining—I laughed out loud several times at the absurdity of the situations the characters got themselves into (reminiscent of an Oscar Wilde play). But, for me, the film rose above mere entertainment in its exploration of gender, fantasy, and art.
The second scene of the film, involving Lucy and Viktor, sets up this theme. Viktor is painting Lucy, and when he finishes she eagerly says, “I want to see. Let me see.” He is reluctant, but she gets the painting from him finally (after some wrestling and biting) and, when she sees it, exclaims, “Who is this?” Because the painting doesn’t look like her at all. Viktor thinks he knows what’s best and tells her, “It suits you better.” “But I don’t like it,” Lucy retorts.
This scene sets up the film’s preoccupation with men’s interest in spinning fantasies of women rather than accepting the real woman that’s right in front of them. Freud lays it out pretty directly to Viktor after he sees his painting of Lucy: “Every fantasy is a wish fulfillment, a correction of one’s unsatisfying reality,” he says. For both Viktor and the Count, the women in their lives are an “unsatisfying reality” that they seek to change.
In letting herself be painted and then asking “Let me see,” Lucy at first succumbs to Viktor’s power to shape her image. For me, the most interesting narrative arc of the film is about Lucy’s overcoming her susceptibility to be defined by men and insisting on defining herself. She briefly allows the Count to define her as his lost-love Nadila (and vampire), but only because she discovers she loves flying. She learns to resist men’s fantasy of her, in the end, by learning what it is she likes to do.
The Countess is not as strong. Having lived for so long without being able to see herself in the mirror, she becomes seduced by what she thinks is her own image—Viktor’s painting of Lucy—and her seduction by her image has dire consequences.
I’ve long loved art critic John Berger’s famous pronouncement about the different roles of women and men: “A woman must continuously watch herself,” he writes. “She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.” This idea is consistently illuminated in Therapy for a Vampire—as both Lucy and the Countess are continually accompanied by Viktor’s image of Lucy. The film makes it clear that a woman’s image of herself is often a fantasy created by a man and lent to her. Her challenge is whether or not to accept that image.
Therapy for a Vampire also brilliantly evokes classic horror, and in the process highlights how early horror films were similarly concerned with women’s struggle to defines themselves as separate from the image in men’s minds.
I was particularly struck by the references to Svengali (Archie Mayo, 1931) since it’s not a terribly well-known film. In Svengali, Trilby (Marian Marsh) is the object both of the objectifying gaze of painters and of Svengali’s more sinister efforts to hypnotize her and turn her into his prize singer. Svengali’s mesmeric powers are distinctly vampiric—and he feeds off Trilby’s success, all the while violently displacing who she really is and what she wants. There’s a scene early in the film that shows Trilby literally “accompanied by her own image,” as John Berger put it, while Svengali is at the same time hypnotizing her. This scene epitomizes how men struggle to impose on Trilby their own fantasy of her.
If Therapy’s Lucy is related to Trilby, then the Countess traces her lineage to Countess Marya Zeleska (Gloria Holden), Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, 1936). Despite her own mesmeric powers, the Countess Zaleska wants only to be “normal,” a desire that drives her to her own therapy sessions. Like her filmic ancestor, the vampiric countess in Therapy seeks a “normalcy” that she finds in the portrait of Lucy. Both women are far from “normal,” however, and their efforts to be normal can only end in doom.
Therapy’s Lucy, on the other hand, actively resists being “normal,” something Viktor desperately wants for her: “She has to become normal again,” he tells Freud, who responds, characteristically, “What’s normal?” The triumph of Therapy for a Vampire is, in the end, precisely Lucy’s refusal to be “normal.” As she declares near the end of the film: “I want to fly as Lucy, not as someone else.” She turns away from her image as created by men—refuses their mirroring of who she is—and decides to create herself.
Therapy for a Vampire, which is distributed in the US by Music Box Films, is opening in theaters in June 10. For participating theaters see: http://www.musicboxfilms.com/t
Here’s the trailer: