Memoirs of My Nervous Illness is based on the 1903 journal written by Daniel Paul Schreber, a distinguished German judge, while incarcerated in an asylum under the watch of the obsessive Dr... See full summary »
Memoirs of My Nervous Illness is based on the 1903 journal written by Daniel Paul Schreber, a distinguished German judge, while incarcerated in an asylum under the watch of the obsessive Dr. Emil Flechsig (Bob Cucuzza). Schreber's insanity was characterized by startling delusions, all chronicled in his journal, including a belief that he directly communicated with God through a secret "nerve language," and a desire to transform himself into a woman. The film depicts the eccentric man's increasing descent into his alternate universe of supernatural powers. Meanwhile, Flechsig struggles to maintain control of his patient, finding himself both attracted and repelled by Schreber's femininity. The narrative culminates in a courtroom plea by Schreber for his freedom from the asylum. Written by
In order to create the other-worldly quality of the "nerve rays," the production utilized galactic noise from NASA space probes. The detailed drawings depicted in Schreber's journal were hand drawn by Mays. See more »
It just goes round in circles, with a bustle on its bum.
I was very impressed with Jefferson Mays's performance in the stage play 'I Am My Own Wife', a factual account of a German transvestite's struggle to survive and maintain his/her transgender dignity during the Third Reich. 'Memoirs of My Nervous Illness' opens with those dread words 'based on a true story', and purports to be the factual account of Daniel Paul Schreber, a cross-dresser institutionalised in Leipzig in 1902. By following his stage triumph with this film, Mays seems wilfully determined to be type-cast in period German transvestite biopics ... and how many of those can there be?
The film opens promisingly. We see a figure walking away from us in period female clothing, presumably a woman. She(?) passes a man whom we will later recognise as Dr Flechsig, an 'alienist'. He glances towards this woman's face -- shown to him but not to us -- as he greets her courteously and walks onward. Then he reacts, realising that all is not right.
We see Daniel Schreber (Mays, with one of Kevin Kline's cast-off moustaches) in bed with his wife. Lara Milian gives a dull and colourless performance in the latter role, but perhaps that's an intentional attempt to show the emptiness of her husband's heterosexual life. Schreber's voice-over confesses that he has suddenly found himself thinking it must be pleasant to be a woman submitting to intercourse. Submitting? Judging from Schreber's body language, he's fantasising about being raped.
Schreber is a respected citizen, a judge who wears Geneva bands. Yet he has difficulty coping, and he commits himself to Flechsig's institution. Here, Schreber becomes convinced he's turning into a woman, and even that he has become pregnant. He draws elaborate sketches which somehow seem too perfect -- no erasures, few blottings -- to be credible.
I've read Freud's notes on Schreber: he had delusions that weren't sexual, and these affected him more severely than his gender dysphoria. Schreber believed that his internal organs were vanishing and reappearing. He believed that hundreds of tiny men were controlling him from inside his head (like the Numskulls in 'The Beano'). But the people who made this movie want to make a transgender statement, so they ignore Schreber's much more serious delusions.
I'd hoped that this film would say something interesting about gender roles, or transgenderism, as did 'I Am My Own Wife'. Some hope! We see some ridiculous sequences in which Schreber feminises his body, puts on make-up and ponces about in female clothing ... while an inmate in a mental institution, remember. The bustles of 1902 looked ridiculous enough on women: when Mays sashays across the room, half-naked but with a bustle on his bum, I could barely choke back laughter.
Annoyingly, several scenes are repeated ... sometimes from a slightly different viewpoint, sometimes exactly the same as before. I actually thought I'd nodded off and woken during the next screening of a sequence I'd already seen.
As usual for modern American films in period settings, everyone's teeth are too good. When Mays screams in close-up, I could see the modern dental stoppings in his molars. For all the *wrong* reasons, this movie reminded me of Roman Polanski's 'The Tenant': both films depict a disaffected male protagonist who gradually finds himself becoming feminised, and both films use screams as dramatic events ... but 'The Tenant' tells an intriguing and coherent story, whilst 'Memoirs' just goes round in circles wearing a bustle on its bum.
This film is art-directed to a fare-thee-well: most of the art direction is impressive, but I was annoyed by some vintage type-fonts which made the credits difficult to read. More positively, an attempt to replicate the typesetting in a 1902 newspaper is almost successful.
The single worst flaw in 'Memoirs of My Nervous Illness' -- allegedly set in Germany in 1902 -- is that all the actors except Mays speak in flat American monotones which constantly remind us that we're nowhere near Germany. The dialogue is necessarily in English ... but whenever any of the actors speaks a German word, even something as simple as 'Herr', it sounds jarring in their American diction. It might have been a mistake for the actors to attempt German accents, in which case the rest of the cast should have done as Mays does here: speak the dialogue in a cultivated intonation which suggests the rhythms of German speech rather than American English.
At the end of the movie, of course, we see a replay of the original encounter ... but this time with a reverse-angle shot to reveal (not remotely a surprise) that the 'woman' is Schreber in drag.
The filmmakers seem to believe that, merely by choosing a transgender subject, they've done something daringly transgressive. That might have been true in 1902; it certainly isn't true in our current millennium. This movie has absolutely nothing to say about transgender or transvestite issues. It would have been nice if the film had at least pointed out one aspect of Schreber's situation: namely, that a transvestite in 1902 had an easier time of it than his modern counterpart, since women's fashions of that period were designed to conceal the wearer's face and figure rather than reveal them. Unlike nowadays, in 1902 it wouldn't have been too difficult for a cross-dressed man to pass as a woman in public. Too bad that this movie pretends it has something important to say about sexual transgression, yet ultimately it just swanks about in circles. If you want to see a movie that says something deeply meaningful about transvestism, skip this mess and rent 'Some Like It Hot' instead. I'll rate 'Memoirs' just 2 points out of 10, mostly for the art direction.
As I write this, Jefferson Mays has recently been signed to co-star in a Broadway production of R.C. Sheriff's 'Journey's End', one of my favourite plays. Here's wishing him luck in a drama that has an all-male cast, with no cross-dressing!
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