Mademoiselle Paradis (Licht)

Austria (2017) Dir. Barbara Albert

People lucky enough to go through life without impairments or disabilities aren’t aware of how much they take basic senses for granted. With my hearing in decline, I wish I could go back to the days when I could hear clearly without assistance. But imagine if your impairment gave you a rare talent – would you want it fixed or stay as you are?

In the late 18th century, Maria Theresia “Resi” Paradis (Maria Dragus) is an 18 year-old pianist of some repute yet has been blind since the age of three. Whilst her parents, Joseph (Lukas Miko), and Maria (Katja Kolm), are proud of their daughter’s talent, they fear her disability will hamper her chances of being married and advancing in society. After years of failed treatments, they learn of a doctor who may be able to cure Resi.

Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer (Devid Striesow) employs the unusual but apparently effective method of animal magnetism, a non-medical, non-invasive form of treatment based on the theory that all animate objects have an invisible life force which can be manipulated via magnets. Remarkably, the treatment begins to yield positive results and Resi starts to see again, but the more her eyesight returns, her musical abilities worsen.

Mademoiselle Paradis is an adaptation of the novel Mesmerized by Alissa Walser which in turn is based on the true events involving the real Maria Theresia Paradis, a musician and composer of great renown and founder of many music schools for the blind. But this is no biopic by any stretch of the imagination as director Barbara Albert doesn’t delve into Maria’s history, keeping the focus solely on this one period of her life.

Anyone looking to know more about this remarkable woman will need to look elsewhere but this film is quite the primer to pique interest in her fascinating story. But despite Resi being the central character, she is in fact a pivot around which the true tale of social snobbery, medical distrust, and exploitation unfolds, reducing Resi’s importance to the narrative as almost purely functional.

Rococo-era Vienna may have been a vibrant hub for sophisticated arts and high society but the people were hardly paragons of class. The social elite were the pompous, snooty types – foppish chinless dandies in effete wigs and women in dome shaped dresses and sky-scraping hair pieces of their own. Resi’s parents each represent both halves of the unscrupulous modern day agent – her mother is the exacting stage mum keeping her on a tight lease, her father siphoning off Resi’s disability pension to fund their own lifestyle, which is of greater import to them.

Dr. Mesmer, as his name ironically implies, is known for his work in hypnotism so it is no surprise many feel his methods are sheer folly and he is a quack. But after years of proto electrotherapy and other reckless forerunners of modern extreme treatments to restore Resi’s eyesight, what else is there left to lose?

Considering homeopathy was first proposed a few years after the events of this story, Dr. Mesmer’s progressive ideas aren’t as crazy as they sound, certainly more patient friendly than those of Resi’s previous doctor and Mesmer critic, Dr. Barth (Hermann Scheidleder). Admittedly, watching Mesmer in action is like watching a new age Hippy trying to cure the world’s ills with peace and love, his hands hovering above Resi’s body as he massages her life force to remove the blockage from her visionary tract.

It’s a gradual process but Reis does begin to regain her eyesight and is now on the road to recovery, essentially having to learn how to see all over again. Everything she had previously felt was now visible to her, some objects recognisable by their shape and form, others requiring fresh introduction. Colours are a new concept for Resi to discover again and most importantly, human faces beckon to be identified for the first time.

Yet, Resi’s musical talents suffer as her eyesight grows stronger to the distress of her greedy parents, though this goes someway to validating the theory that much of the gift of playing music comes from feel rather than technique. The other side of the coin, given that Resi was just three when she suddenly went blind, is the possibility it might have been psychosomatic, though this is never raised at all, only loosely implied.

As fascinating as this tale is, it is this lack of in depth exploration into the cause of Resi’s condition and the psychological fallout of regaining her sight after so long that holds this film back from being the prestige movie it wasn’t to be. For example, now she can see her parents  she *should* be able to read their pernicious motives on their faces but can’t as she hasn’t seen them in 15 years which surely is a crucial plot point in learning how badly they’ve exploited her.

Had the film been longer than 96-minutes this might have been a later development but maybe this didn’t rise in real life either. As anachronistic as the medial practices might seem, for the duration we are transported back to an authentic looking Vienna during the Rococo era, with no expense spared in the flamboyant costumes and impeccably reconstructed architecture.

Just as Resi is the anchor of the story, the performance of Maria Dragus is the anchor of the entire film. Not to downplay the contributions of the rest of the cast but Dragus has the unenviable task of navigating Resi through every stage of this extraordinary journey and reacting accordingly. From the beginning with her malfunctioning eyes to the joyous physical and emotional wonder of discovering the world again, to the downbeat ending, Dragus is mesmerising as a budding flower trying to bloom against the odds.

Mademoiselle Paradis does almost everything right except examine its chief subject with greater interest, causing many lulls with Resi’s absence in what is a finely made, well acted but often sterile film.