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  • Writer's pictureS.J.

'The Devil’s Bath' review: You can't pray the melancholia away | Tribeca 2024

Anja Plaschg in a confession booth with praying hands

What a joyous moment it is to get a new expression for not being able to get out of your bed and preferring to simply rot instead. Hooray. That's why the title of The Devil's Bath (Des Teufels Bad in German) shall be in our vocabularies from now on if it wasn't there before. Written and directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala who are adapting historical research materials by Kathy Stuart, the film is set in Austria in the 1750s and begins with a prologue where we see a woman throwing a baby off a cliff to their death.

Afterwards, we meet Agnes (Anja Plaschg, also the composer under her moniker Soap&Skin), a devoted Christian woman who marries Wolf (David Scheid), and the two of them move into a new house with hopes of starting their own life and family. But when Wolf struggles to get involved sexually and his mom Gänglin (Maria Hofstätter) becomes more and more demanding of Agnes, which spreads spiteful gossip in their community, Agnes falls into deep depression with suicidal ideations. Since suicide is considered to be a terrible sin, which would prevent one's afterlife in heaven, she contemplates committing a crime that she could seek absolution from and which would be punishable by execution.

Considering the filmmakers' previous work, plus the film's distribution plans and its ominous name, viewers, including yours truly, probably have to check their expectations when approaching this material. Calling The Devil's Bath horror would certainly be a stretch as it tackles the story more as a historical drama, down to the general visual language and seemingly considerable period details. When looking at it as a historical drama, Franz and Fiala have found a chilling, heavy and endlessly interesting story to tell, one that will also resonate with you long after too. Exploring religious hypocrisy, gender dynamics, violence and mental health, the slow burn of it all builds a proper sense of time and place thanks to Tanja Hausner's costume design, the arresting scenery, as well as set designs and decor (overseen by production designers Andreas Donhauser and Renate Martin) that appropriately deteriorate alongside Agnes' mindset.

Plaschg's work in the lead role is mostly sufficient but the movie overall is perhaps lacking a performance that would stick around and haunt your mind, although the actor does get some bigger showcase moments towards the end when Agnes seeks aforementioned absolution. The real story happens to be Plaschg's score, which effectively underlines the character's despair with a rumbling bass, vocal chops and strident sounds of string instruments, warning you about the terrible act that Agnes sees as her only way out of this dire situation. It's often able to maintain some of the unsettling aura when Franz and Fiala struggle to maintain it with dialogue, which at times can be pretty clumsy, both in terms of the actual words and also the slow delivery which is not helping.

That type of perfunctory dialogue is also more noticeable when a film has an extremely lethargic rhythm (Michael Palm is the editor) like The Devil's Bath has. There really isn't a flow to the scenes that will keep you locked in, which many will find to be a fatal flaw, and which also does a disservice to the weighty story the movie is telling. Therefore you're left with this nagging feeling that the filmmakers didn't really mine all of the potential that was in front of them all along. What remains, though, is an absorbing psychological tale with strong craftsmanship that provides you with a suitably bleak world view to possess for two hours. You might need to take a relaxing bath or a mental health day after watching this movie but that's not a bad thing.

Smileys: Story, score, set decoration

Frowneys: Pacing, dialogue

You weren't supposed to throw the baby out with the devil's bathwater.


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