Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Franz & Fiala’s The Devil’s Bath

They did not have no-fault divorce in 18th Century rural Austria. They didn’t have fun either, but there was a lot of severe Calvinistic religion. Consequently, depressed people, especially unhappily married women, resorted to extreme measures. Newlywedded Agnes will be one of them in Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala’s The Devil’s Bath, which opens Friday in theaters.

In the prologue, a profoundly distressed woman hurls her infant into a waterfall. She is then gruesomely executed, but she was allowed to confess first, so from the standpoint of her eternal soul, she’s okay. According to Kathy Stuart’s research, which inspired the film, this was a thing at the time, like the 1700s’ suicide-by-cop.

Given the roots of Franz & Fiala’s screenplay, it bodes poorly for Agnes’ marriage. Her husband Wolf is no Valentino, but her mother-in-law Ganglin is a real handful. Agnes works like an ox and gets picked apart by Ganglin, but she isn’t getting pregnant anytime soon, because Wolf isn’t keeping his end up, so to speak.

So, married life is not much fun for Agnes. It only gets scarier when she starts having visions—or maybe she is just getting ideas. Her mental and emotional health are questionable, but the only treatment for depression at the time, aside from more crummy work, was a bleeding, or some other medieval torture, from the dubious barber.

Devil’s Bath
(a metaphor for depression) has been positioned as a horror film, but it is really a bleak exercise in cinematic masochism. There is some atmospheric lighting, but nobody will ever be scared by Devil’s Bath—just depressed. Franz and Fiala have a genre reputation thanks to The Lodge and Goodnight Mommy, but this is a departure for them.

Admittedly, everyone looks like a damp, smelly peasant. Maria Hofstatter is especially notable for her exhaustingly shrewish performance as Ganglin. Anja Plaschg is also convincingly miserable and desperate as Agnes.

The cast struggles valiantly, but the narrative lacks an arc. Instead, it is just a steep, straight line, plummeting down from horrible to even worse. Frankly, it is not shocking this film was somehow rooted in an academic volume. It rather makes sense. The film certainly drags viewers through the muck, but that is all it has. Not recommended,
The Devil’s Bath opens this Friday (6/21) in New York, at the IFC Center.