Monday, January 10, 2011

NYJFF ’11: Mahler on the Couch

They were arguably the greatest Viennese cultural figures of their era, but it was only in the picturesque Dutch town of Leiden that Modernist-forerunner composer Gustav Mahler briefly encountered Sigmund Freud. Though the historical details remain vague, father-son filmmakers Percy and Felix Adlon recognized the dramatic potential of what many assume was an emergency session of psychoanalysis in Mahler on the Couch (trailer here), the official opening night selection of this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum.

Of course, Freud presupposes Mahler’s problems are fundamentally sexual in nature. In this case, he is not completely wrong. Mahler’s marriage was deeply troubled. There were many reasons for this, which we see in flashbacks as the anxious maestro reluctantly assumes the position on Freud’s makeshift couch. The simple fact of their nineteen year age difference is inescapable. Yet, Mahler’s ultimatum requiring Anna Schindler to abandon her own compositional ambitions to dedicate herself to his career is far more significant. With a profound family tragedy and a rather indiscreet affair compounding their estrangement, the Mahler union appears doomed.

While the meeting of Mahler and Freud holds an iconic fascination, like an early Twentieth Century Nixon and Elvis summit, Alma Mahler is the film’s true protagonist. The future Mrs. Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel was undoubtedly a complicated figure. The Adlons present her as an early proto-feminist who willingly subordinates her creativity to Mahler’s superior genius. It is a tricky proposition to sell, but Barbara Romaner mostly pulls it off, projecting both an earthy sensuality and the appropriate sophistication as Alma Mahler.

Fusing the intimate and the operatic is no mean feat either, but the Adlons make a credible attempt, but fall well short of the bar set Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love. Oddly, they periodically undermine the film’s sweeping romanticism with third wall-breaking recollections of minor supporting characters. This also muddies the POV of what would be more effective as a strict memory play from Mahler’s perspective.

Granted, Couch obviously sympathizes with the Mrs., but it never shortchanges Gustav Mahler. Johannes Silberschneider portrays him as a doting father and a driven creator with a surprising amount of wit. We vividly see his fervor for music and hear the results in an elegant soundtrack recorded by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by L.A. Philharmonic director Esa-Pekka Salonen. In contrast, Karl Markovics is merely required to nod attentively and complain about late meals as the good Dr. Freud.

Filmed on location in Leiben and Vienna, Couch has plenty of old world atmosphere. It looks and sounds great, but somehow the Albons never fully get it together. There are just too many tonal shifts and not enough focus on the dramatic core. Ultimately, despite all its passion Couch leaves the audience somewhat cold. Imminently respectable, at least it has the right cachet to launch the 2011 NYJFF. It screens twice this Wednesday (1/12) at the Walter Reade Theater, where the festival continues through January 27th.