Therapy for a Vampire Dir. David Ruehm

[Music Box Films; 2014]

Styles: comedy, vampires
Others: What We Do in Shadows, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution

Even with the recent and ongoing glut of vampire-related films, a pitch like that for David Ruehm’s latest film Therapy for a Vampire is pretty hard to ignore: in 1930s Vienna, a vampire frustrated with his centuries-old wife seeks counseling from Sigmund Freud. It’s an outstanding premise, ripe with potential for both humor and insight, but it’s also a little misleading, kind of like saying Psycho is about a fugitive looking for a place to spend the night. That logline proves to be Therapy for a Vampire’s setup rather than its story, however, and though the film which ensues is charming, witty, and handsomely produced, it fails to live up to the potential of its scenario.

Count Geza von Kozsnom (Tobias Moretti) is the eponymous vampire who, weary of the routine of his undead life, seeks the counsel of Dr. Freud (Karl Fischer), who by 1932, when the film is set, was already an internationally known and controversial figure for his theories on sexuality, consciousness, and dreams. Among Geza’s complaints is his wife’s constant need for reaffirmation; Countess Elsa (Jeanette Hain), having been unable to see her own reflection since becoming a vampire centuries ago, feels like she has lost a part of her identity and can sense Geza’s fatigue at her repeated requests to describe her appearance or tell her that she is beautiful. Freud interprets Elsa’s inability to see herself as figurative rather than literal, a form of scopophobia, and suggests Geza hire an artist to paint her portrait. He suggests Viktor (Dominic Oley), whom he has been employing to illustrate his patients’ dreams for a forthcoming book. Though initially skeptical, Geza immediately embraces the notion when shown a painting Viktor recently completed of his girlfriend Lucy (a winsome Cornelia Ivancan).

Though not a patient of Freud, Viktor has shared with his employer some of his own sexual frustrations. Though they are ostensibly superficial (Lucy wears her hair in a bun, refuses makeup, and dresses in trousers and other practical attire that doesn’t “suit” her), Viktor’s complaints actually betray an anxiety (contemporary, sadly, to both the film’s setting and the present day) about female agency and the loosening reins of patriarchal authority. It is here that Ruehm’s screenplay and direction are at their best, juxtaposing Lucy and Elsa as two headstrong women who feel shackled in their roles and yearn to assert and define themselves outside of the context of their ambivalent male counterparts. Even though Freud disappears for the film’s entire second act, his presence reverberates throughout, surely as it does through just about any work about vampires — chopping carrots becomes an image of castration anxiety, and Geza’s visible revulsion after drinking blood that is “sixty percent virgin, forty percent nightclub dancer” alludes to Freud’s much-discussed Madonna-whore complex.

When it is established that Lucy is a dead ringer for his long-since-departed first love Nadila (undead ringer?), Geza’s sudden infatuation and seduction make sense. When it is later divulged that Nadila vowed to reincarnate herself in Lucy’s body only if Lucy willingly gives herself to Geza on the first full moon after their initial meeting, however, it sets off a series of events that Therapy for a Vampire is then obliged to resolve at the expense of the subtler and more compelling social critique it had erstwhile established. Things are further complicated when Geza’s assistant Radul (David Bennent) falls for Lucy, a subplot which affords a few laughs but not much substance.

This, ultimately, is why Therapy for a Vampire entertains but fails to fully satisfy: as smartly constructed as the dramaturgy may be, there is too much left untapped and unexplored in its premise. Unlike a film such as The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which saw a cocaine-addled Sherlock Holmes shuttled off to Vienna to be treated for his addiction by Sigmund Freud, thus cleverly subverting the legacies of both men, Ruehm largely abandons the thematic subtext once the gears of plot start spinning. There are plenty of great riffs on the mythology of vampirism, particularly their often overlooked arithmomania, but Freud is Freud in name only — his depiction is so neutral that, discounting his publishing a book on dreams, he could have been any nameless psychoanalyst at any point in time without compromising the story. It’s curious that a film which features Sigmund Freud and a depressed vampire as two of its primary characters should make no attempt to address the former’s theory of the life and death drives nor the latter’s obsessive compulsive behavior vis-à-vis arithmomania.

Psychologically, the most interesting element of Therapy for a Vampire is its fixation upon mirrors, both literal and figurative. Lucy and Elsa both desire to see themselves manifest in the world, as simultaneously Self and Other, but find their contingency upon the men in their lives warps or occludes that perception. Freud is referred to as “a famous reflections expert,” and when Lucy and Viktor finally begin to come to some real understanding about one another, she says, “You could be my mirror, and I’ll be yours.” This desire to be appreciated or “seen,” and Viktor’s pledge to “never paint a false picture of you,” eventually move from a psychological subtext to a feminist one, however, and while that is no less valid, it is more pat and less expansive than it could have been if Ruehm left the door open for more of the therapy angle. At only eighty seven minutes, Therapy for a Vampire can afford to loosen its collar and explore some of the avenues it only gestures toward. This is good entertainment, but its bite is only skin deep.

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