Friday, April 19, 2024

“THE DEVIL’S BATH”

THE STORY – In 1750, in Upper Austria, a young woman named Agnes marries a stranger. She feels alienated and lonely in his unfamiliar world. As she is very devout and emotional, she isolates herself increasingly from rural life and work. She sees no escape from her inner torment except for a horrific act of violence.

THE CAST – Anja Plaschg, David Scheid & Maria Hofstätter

THE TEAM – Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala (Directors/Writers)

THE RUNNING TIME – 121 Minutes


Following “Goodnight Mommy” and “The Lodge,” directing duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala return with “The Devil’s Bath,” the next installment in their unofficial trilogy of films that explores the pain of motherhood. Based on historical records, “The Devil’s Bath” tells a true story set in 18th-century Austria of a young woman who loses her sense of self after marrying a stranger.

Opening fittingly with the screams of a baby, the shrill sound pierces its way through the audience until you are silently pleading for relief. Disturbingly, that relief comes in the form of the film’s central theme, infanticide. The murderer hands themself to the local authorities, confessing their crime, and is subsequently executed for their immoral act. The sequence is dark, both in plot and tone, leaving the audience with a sense of fear and anxiety to carry forward as the story then truly begins.

A sharp cut brings us to our protagonist, Agnes (Anja Plaschg), a young woman with child-like sensibilities and a bright, youthful face. She is deeply religious and exudes an air of goodness and innocence about her as she playfully interacts with insects and animals and collects items that bring her joy, such as shiny fish scales. On the day of her wedding, bathed in sunlight, she is carried to the ceremony by the villagers, who shout her name jubilantly. Wolf (David Scheid) is her husband-to-be, and the two spend the ceremony interacting awkwardly as they get to know one another. The mood is light, and despite a teary goodbye with her mother, Agnes appears to be in good spirits, a direct contrast to the film’s opening scene. But all of this soon comes to an end as a shocking reminder of the reality of the time hits Agnes and the audience. After she is married, her hair is covered, an apron is placed over her clothes, and a toy baby is placed in her arms. The message is clear: a wife’s purpose is to give her husband a child and nothing more.

Agnes immediately finds married life difficult. Being away from her own mother proves torturous, and Wolf is unable to consummate their marriage, leaving her without a child and being judged for it by her overbearing mother-in-law (Maria Hofstätter). There’s no outright abuse but rather a stripping of dignity as Agnes’ life is removed from her own control. Somehow, Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala manage to make this pain feel even more excruciating. The quiet atmosphere of loneliness is suffocating as the isolating setting of the film bears down on Agnes. The forest in which she lives is as much a character as a setting, as its leaves cover the sunlight and its brambles claw at Agnes when she walks through it. Every task is exhausting, whether being forced to pray ten times while cooking her husband’s meals or crawling through mud to catch fish.

It is made clear that Agnes only wants to please her husband, who makes little effort to return such desires. As was expected of a woman in her position, she goes out of her way to initiate sex and is constantly faced with his rejection. Her inability to conceive a child is internalized as disappointing God, to whom she has promised her best efforts to be a good wife. The bright woman on her wedding day is gone, and Franz and Fiala’s simplistic script effectively depicts this loss of freedom without making it explicit. The colors slowly drain out of the film, and the warmth of that bright wedding day fades away, leaving only a sterile fog in its place. Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht expertly frames the cold, barren landscapes, reflecting Agnes’ yearning for a baby that never comes. Woven throughout the score is the sound of a ticking clock, referencing her biological clock and infusing the film with a foreboding sense of dread as time passes. The filmmakers are able to build suspense through the dramatic visuals and insidious cello score, but perhaps for those viewers lacking in patience, it takes too long to get there in the second act.

Above the village, the corpse of the executed woman from the opening leers from atop a cliff, a constant foreshadowing of what is to come possibly for Agnes. The woman’s head is removed, and her toes and fingers are brutally cut off. The body is left to decompose; she cannot be buried. The devout Catholic village is intent on punishing those who defy their religion. When a young man commits suicide, his body is thrown out onto the land. The church also refuses to bury him, stating that suicide is a crime worse than murder. The bodies are left to deteriorate publicly, as Agnes is left with a dark cloud hovering over her, constantly reminding her there is no way to escape. She cannot even find freedom in death without disappointing God.

Anja Plaschg portrays Agnes’ slow descent into madness with precision and subtlety. Her unexpected choices build Agnes into a fully realized character without ever playing a false note, culminating in an explosive confession scene where her haunting performance truly impresses. Her madness is frightening but, at the same time, understandable. Franz and Fiala construct the film with such restraint and profound melancholy that watching Agnes internally suffer for two hours is extremely difficult but necessary. It takes a while to get there, but when Agnes commits her final sin, which is unbearably gruesome, there is finally a sense of relief that counterbalances all of the gloom that came before it.

“The Devil’s Bath” is a deeply unsettling exploration of the oppressed women throughout history who were led to believe (and are still led to believe in some cases) that their own bodies do not belong to them. Directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala craft a world that is believable in its pessimism, and a strong leading performance from Anja Plaschg boldly reflects the true horrors of humanity. The film takes a long time to establish tension, but the potency of the story and pacing hits its stride when Agnes begins to crumble. Franz and Fiala have once again proven themselves to be adept at crafting suspense from bold and dark storytelling with thematic resonance.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Exhibits strong visual and sound work with clear directorial intent. The story is enveloping, and the performances are good from every one, with an awe-inspiring performance from Anja Plaschg.

THE BAD - The second half is a little too indulgent in its mood-building, slowing down the pace slightly.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - Best International Feature Film

THE FINAL SCORE - 9/10

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Exhibits strong visual and sound work with clear directorial intent. The story is enveloping, and the performances are good from every one, with an awe-inspiring performance from Anja Plaschg.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The second half is a little too indulgent in its mood-building, slowing down the pace slightly.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-international-feature/">Best International Feature Film</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>9/10<br><br>"THE DEVIL'S BATH"