Another in the series of podcasts where Howard Ingham and I watch a film we’d not previously seen and then have a chat about it. This time it’s latter day Johnny Depp enabler Gore Verbinski’s box office bomb A Cure for Wellness (2017).
You can stream the podcast here:
A Cure for Wellness borrows liberally from a variety of film sources but one thing we didn’t really have time to cover in enough depth during the podcast was the setting.
The sanatorium, set high in the Swiss Alps with its purifying air (and deadly water, see the podcast) cuts the patients off from their previous lives both physically and emotionally. The film is only the latest in a long line to make the awesome nature of mountains key to a story’s aesthetic.
Mountains are impassive, uncaring, democratic. Heroes and villains are destroyed alike. With in-built metaphor, mountains are obvious playgrounds for drama. They provide exciting back drops for James Bond or Sherlock Holmes but are also key players in addressing humanity’s relationship with the natural world.
The Epic of Everest (John Noel, 1924) is made all the more tragic and terrifying because the events depicted are 100% real, as is the vulnerability and bravery of the souls immortalised. Films like Touching The Void (Kevin Macdonald, 2003) and North Face (Philipp Stölzl, 2008) build on Noel’s work with further tales based on true stories, but mountains can also be used in other, more subtle ways.
The timing of an avalanche in Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, 2014) threatens to rip a family apart when the husband seems intent on saving himself ahead of his children. The Wyoming Mountains provide the solace and spiritual home of Ennis and Jack’s relationship in Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005).
Mountains are also a constant source of inspiration, from the Tang Dynasty poet Hanshan to the English Romantics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In more recent times Robert Macfarlane explores Western attitudes to mountains in Mountains of the Mind (2003).
Mountains are also used to isolate, Jonathan Harker knows he is a prisoner as much because of the Carpathian Mountains as Dracula himself in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. Both HP Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1936) and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast stories (1946-59, 2009) describe habitats cut off by natural setting containing horrific or at least unusual inhabitants.
Of course such isolation can also provide solace from the wider world, which bring us full circle to A Cure for Wellness and perhaps its biggest influence, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924). Telling the story of a young man who visits a sick cousin in a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. Inside he finds a microcosm of Western Society and its ills, and is convinced to stay by the institute’s director. And that is pretty much straight up the premise of A Cure for Wellness.
I’ll leave the last word on this to Gore Verbinski himself:
“Well, there’s this book by Thomas Mann called The Magic Mountain that we’re both fans of, and that book deals with people in a sanatorium in the Alps, clutching on to their sickness like a badge before the outbreak of World War I. We wanted to explore this sense of denial and say, well, what if that was a genre?”1,