Friday 7 May 2021

Muddying the waters: "Charlatan"

The veteran Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland has enjoyed a late-career extension via for-hire gigs on such prestige premium-cable and streaming dramas as House of Cards and The Wire. Her latest feature, Charlatan, pivots on the kind of individual who might well have provided the basis for an HBO , a man at once unsympathetic and fascinating. This is Jan Mikolášek (played here by Ivan Trojan), an uptight, fastidious quack, pilloried by the press of the time as "the oracle of urine", who got quite the grift going in post-War Czechoslovakia, analysing his (many) patients' piss samples, before matching them up with pricey homeopathic remedies. (We join him as he fobs off one woman with what he calls a "herbal douche", which really is a case of physician, prescribe thyself.) Mikolášek occupied a tenuous position in this forbiddingly Communist state: worshipped by his clients, he drove around in a swish American convertible bought with the profits of his poultices, usually with František Palko (Juraj Loj), the young male assistant who doubled as his secret lover, at his side. We know the good times are over and the jig is up when a behatted functionary arrives at Mikolášek's provincial fortress in the middle of the night with a warning to get out of town while he still can. Holland's interest lies in how Mikolášek got there in the first place, which is connected to both residual Mitteleuropan superstition and Czechoslovakia's position in World War II. Those patients' ailments are as nothing compared to what's gnawing away on the doctor's soul.

The story (by Marek Epstein, from an idea by Martin Sulc) has been set out in that muted, self-effacing style that has made Holland such a reliable hire in cableland: she's armed herself with another involving, twisty narrative of power and corruption, and she's wise enough to know she shouldn't get in the way of it. Her biggest intervention comes in the form of sporadic flashbacks to Mikolášek's younger days - a standard biopic device, yes, but one that's been rather eccentrically deployed here; in trying to give us a handle on this wormy fellow, these scenes do as much to muddy as to clarify the waters. (While we're on the subject: you won't ever have encountered a period drama with so many scenes of people staring intently at stoppered bottles of pee; it becomes Mikolášek's party trick when the Nazis goosestep into town.) The film notes the doctor clearly had some talent: his herbal douchery spares the gangrenous leg of his sister from an appointment with the surgeon's bone saw. (As he looks down disbelievingly at the hands that wrought this near-miracle, I was reminded of Alec Baldwin's speech to the medical board in Malice - the one that ends with the almighty punchline "You ask me if I have a God complex? Let me tell you something: I am God.") Yet it's waiting for this boyish promise to be misapplied, thence to wither on the vine: those flashbacks collectively act as a case for the prosecution, and they get more damning as they go. Charlatan is steady and (that unfashionable word) forensic in its interrogation of a very odd man: it's a film that makes a point of being at every turn more sober than its characters, the better to highlight Mikolášek's foibles. The commanding Trojan scarcely needs any help: his dubious doc is a memorably prissy, humourless figure, riven with self-interest, and headed for an utterly contemptible, calculating final sell out. If he were still around today, I suspect the UK Government would have him nailed on to replace that Hancock bloke as health minister.

Charlatan is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema, the BFI Player and IFI@Home.

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