In many ways, A Cure for Wellness is the film I’ve been waiting for Gore Verbinski to make ever since his adaptation of The Ring in 2002. Taken from a screenplay from Justin Haythe, it revolves around a young executive, Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), who is sent by the board of his New York firm to recover a senior partner who has shacked up at a remote wellness spa at the foot of the Swiss Alps. Time is of the essence, since this partner needs to be recovered in order to broker a significant deal, and Lockhart initially plans to remove him as quickly and efficiently as possible. However, after a nasty car accident, Lockhart finds himself housed in the spa and assured that his employers back in New York have been apprised of his need for recuperation. At first, the long, empty days of the Alps make a welcome counterpoint to the twenty-four-hour grind of corporate life – Lockhart had originally planned to travel from New York to Switzerland and back in a single market day – but as time goes by Lockhart starts to suspect that something is amiss at the spa, and that his treatment actually may be serving some more nefarious purpose, leading to an investigative narrative that uncovers deeper and deeper layers to the wellness process, both in terms of psychological repercussions and the physical layout and architecture of the spa precinct itself.
From start to finish, the film brims with an inexhaustible visual inventiveness and creativity that frequently outstrips – or absorbs – the narrative momentum. Above and beyond the thrill of what will happen next, the suspense lies in the anticipation of what further images and tableaux Verbinski can envisage, as well as how he will expand upon what we have already seen. While not necessarily – or consistently – giallo in its style, then, A Cure for Wellness is utterly giallo in the scope and intensity of Verbinski’s vision, which culminates with a third act that effectively plays out as a sustained montage sequence of incredible spaces and images that take the key motifs of the film to their flamboyant extremity. In other words, this is pure visual opera, and an auteurist gesture in the old-fashioned, crazy, unhinged kind of way, with the final third often reminding me of the centrifugual intensity of Michael Cimino. At close to three hours in length, it’s a tour de force of stylistic invention that is certainly excessive at times, but always in such a manner as to implicate the process of looking and watching in ever more insightful, uncomfortable and frequently aspects of the narrative.
That’s not to say, either, that the entire film is pitched at that frenzied level, since the vast majority of the opening two acts – and this is a movie that plays out very consciously in acts – is suffused with a crystalline clarity in which everything feels a little digitally modified, but not so much that any one special effect stands out. Over the last couple of years, directors seem to have naturally gravitated towards the Alps as a way of calibrating the transition from classically cinematic to post-classical cinematic modes. In part, that’s because the Alps already have such a strong association with modernist literature and culture, thanks in no small part to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain – the one great cinematic modernist novel that has never really been adapted for the big screen in a sustained way, and which plays an absolutely central role here. As a result, like Nicole Garcia’s From the Land of the Moon, which played at Cannes last year, have taken advantage of this modernist heritage to paint the Alps as a natural backdrop for excercisies in revising and questioning cinematic classicism and naturalism.
At the same time, treatments like Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth and Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria have imagined the Alps as a place of such intensely pellucid air that they almost require the hyper-real immanence of digital cinematography to draw out the broader and more traditionally cinematic expanse of their panoramic vistas, with Assayas’ alternation between digital depictions of SmartPhone exchanges and excerpts from silent cinematic treatments of mountaineering making the connection in a particularly pointed way. Finally, films like Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak have used Alpine iconography – if not the Alps per se – as a kind of combination of these two tendencies, discovering a hyper-cinematic potential in the Alps that is nevertheless so heightened and so detached from any putative naturalism that it speaks to the inherently digital lens through which all of these films conceive of the cinematic in the first place, even or especially at their most traditionally or classically analog.
Part of the genius of A Cure for Wellness lies in the way in which it combines all these tendencies, although it owes a special debt to Crimson Peak for its remediation of Gothic iconography for a digital era. First and foremost, A Cure for Wellness is driven by this classically and extravagantly Gothic sense of space, as Lockhart continually discovers further reticulations, complications and interstitial passages within the spa, which turns out to be built over an eighteenth-century Gothic edifice. As the film proceeds, a Gothic narrative gradually emerges piecemeal, as the inhabitants of the spa and the local villagers corroborate, revise and occasionally disagree about the events that took place two centuries ago. While various versions of the legend seem to have been passed down through the generations, most agree that the castle that originally occupied the site was inhabited by a Baron and Baroness, brother and sister, who enjoyed a deep incestuous romance. Their love was tainted, however, by the fact that the Baroness was ill in some way, leading the Baron to experiment on local villagers in order to “cure” her – a process that sparked mounting outrage until the Baroness was burned alive on her wedding night, along with the castle around her.
On top of that narrative, however, Verbinski builds a very different kind of digital aesthetic, since it also emerges that both the spa and the castle were built over an even more ancient aquifer, which plays a critical role both in the Baron’s experiments and the wellness cure of the present day. It’s not surprising, then, that the entire film feels refracted through a gathering drop of water, or through a glass of water, as Verbinski employs a seemingly inexhaustible range of fisheye perspectives, curvaceous reflective surfaces and a gelatinous sense of space to displace any distinction between solid and liquid. I can’t think of a recent film in which I’ve been so acute of the lens of the camera, even as Verbinski also progressively reveals the lens to be a mere digital effect as well, as the aquifer continually sends a liquid ripple through even the most immaculately framed mise-en-scenes to suggest some digital disruption lurking beneath the surface of what initially appear to be classically and staunchly analog spectacles. That’s only enhanced by the sound design, as Verbinski introduces a creaking, heaving groan around the edges of his heightened stillness and eerie calmness – in part, a distant echo of the aquifer creaking and groaning beneath the surface, but also a result of the spa water moving through the body of each patient, since, as the head doctor reminds us, “The body is 65% water – it’s our fluids that need to be cleansed.”
In that sense, Verbinski’s lens and sound design evokes a world of wellness that is almost disembodied in its clarity and brilliance – a world of pure mindfulness – and yet a world that also seems to subsist, distantly, on something more heavingly corporeal and viscerally embodied. It’s an utterly brilliant twist, then, that the heads of the sanitarium are actually using the patients to distill and cleanse the water, rather than vice versa. In the third act, Lockhart discovers that the water in the aquifer does indeed have rejuvenating and life-giving properties, but is also full of dangerous toxins as well. The solution that the spa doctors – and the Baroness before them – have come up with is to present the water itself as a cure, and to continually move it in whatever way possible – drinking, bathing, swimming, hosing – across and through each patient’s body until it is cleansed of its impurities, albeit dehydrating and killing the patients in the process, all of whom are gradually preserved and mummified by the slow and steady accretion of toxins, achieving a kind of immortality and “presentness” that is radically different from the one they envisaged in all their mindfulness and wellness seminars.
In other words, the bodies of the patients are used to filter, purify and cleanse the water – rather than vice versa – doing the cleansing for the corporation that runs the spa, rather than being cleansed themselves. And Verbinski’s camera functions in a similar way, ostensibly purifying, cleansing and distilling what’s in front of it even as it also accrues something that deforms, distorts and denatures it as the same time. Even as the film appears to be transcending the bodies of its characters with each new scene and each new day of treatment, it has also been registering the residual heaves and shudders of something inextricably corporeal lodging itself in their bodies, which is perhaps why the sheer liquidity of Verbinski’s camera has such a heaviness to it at the same time. The more pellucid and crystalline the Alps air becomes, the more it seems to literally crystallise and congeal into a glassiness that slows down and preserves each of the patients into a series of mindful postures and poses.
The result is an incredible parody of the cult of corporate wellness that has spread across so many diverse institutions over the last half decade, as Verbinski aestheticises the ideal end point of “wellness” – a state of pure mindfulness, blank positivity and rapturous sensory immersion in the immediate environment – only to reveal something lumbering and embodied beneath it, a toll of bodies that implicates the camera in its way even as you can’t quite articulate how it is doing so until it’s all much too late. Conventionally, wellness serves corporations, and at first that seems to be subverted here, as Lockhart discovers, late in the piece, that his time at the spa has utterly destroyed any chances he had of making partner at his firm. Yet that also signals that wellness has moved from a corporate adjunct to a nefarious and Gothic corporation in itself, as if the film were envisaging a world in which corporations existed entirely to regulate, monitor and dispense wellness to those willing enough to pay the price. By the end, then, the full and literal meaning of the title becomes clear – this is not a cure of wellness but, literally, a cure for wellness, a cure that exists only for the sake of facilitating those who derive power from disseminating wellness as a concept.
It’s a wonderful final touch, then, that the film reserves its most lurid and Gothic flourishes for the representative of these beneficiaries of the cult of wellness, who sums up his case to Lockhart in the concluding scene: “Do you know what the cure for the human condition is? Disease, because only then is there hope for a cure.” In an incredible twist, the sadistic heroes of Gothic literature are figured as so many progenitors of the cult of wellness, while – even more strikingly – the heroes and heroines of the Gothic imagination, and their typical efforts to sort out reality from imagination, are presented as so many efforts to distinguish genuine mental and physical health from the “wellness” that their overlords are keen to foist upon them. And it’s in that connection between Gothic tropes, digital technology and the corporatisation of mental health that the film’s genius lies, making for one of the most wonderfully extravagant and stylistically experimental blockbusters I’ve seen for some time, which is perhaps why it has also failed so drastically as a blockbuster, too eccentric in its outlook for an era in which cinematic wellness is defined by universe-building and corporate franchising.