Genre: Gothic Drama
Premise: A psychiatrist becomes involved with a disturbed young woman, but falls foul of those responsible for her condition — a former Nazi doctor and mysterious Reverend Sister.
Why You Should Read: Played against the rainy altitude of the Austrian Tyrol in 1975, FROM THE CONVALESCENCE OF CHRISTIANNE ZELMAN is both love story and Nazi fairy-tale. The role of Christianne is tailor-made for an Oscar-bound actress while the script itself resurrects an all but forgotten genre — one that allowed me to showcase character and dialogue inside a heightened storyworld. Indeed, I tried to write something that owes as much to golden-age melodrama as it does to the likes of Tennessee Williams and Rainer Fassbinder. In short, I’m convinced this script is like nothing else around at the moment!
Writer: Levres de Sang
Details: 99 pages
What I admire about Levres is that he seems to understand he’s pushing a story that’s not the most accessible. He knows this isn’t straight horror and that Blumhouse isn’t about to come knocking on his door after reading it. But my question to Levres would then be, what is the goal here? If you write something that’s far outside a noted genre, what can you expect other than for it to be an interesting experiment? I say this because I think Convalescence has the bones of what could be a movie if it was written as a horror-style thriller. I don’t know if Levres is interested in exploring that route, though.
Let’s get to the plot. And I apologize in advance for the vagueness of some of the story beats as I wasn’t always clear what was going on, something I’ll be talking about in the analysis.
It’s 1975. Austria. Dr. Michael Reinhardt, a married psychiatrist, is being called away to evaluate Christianne Zelman, a young woman of 29 recovering from an illness. Reinhardt, I think, is being given the order to classify Christianne as insane so she can be institutionalized.
So Michael travels to Christianne’s home where her mother, Luise, is taking care of her. Christianne also has a young son, Emil. And every night the family goes through an elaborate routine whereby Luise makes warm milk and has Emil takes it to her mother.
Christianne’s a weirdo. She keeps a dressed-up mannequin next to her bedside and will occasionally take on the personality of another woman. When Michael shows up, Christianne isn’t quiet about the fact that she loves him immediately. Michael, despite knowing his patient is unwell, can’t deny he’s intrigued by her too.
The story seems to center on Christianne recounting her past institutionalization, where she was a patient for a mysterious doctor named Rupert Oberweis. It’s through her recounting of this past that we learn a lot of interesting things, such as the fact that Christianne was born on the exact same day Hitler died. And that she was part of a drug program that got everyone in the institution addicted except for her.
As Christianne falls more in love with Michael, he will have to sort through his own growing feelings to figure out what happened to Christianne in that facility and why it is that everyone seems so nervous by Christianne taking a liking to him.
Let’s start with the writing here because I had a tough time with it. There is a pervasive fuzziness, both in the way characters were introduced and the way plot points were unveiled that often left me unsure of exactly what was going on.
My guess is that this is a component of the genre Levres is shooting for? I noticed Levres and a few others in the comments talking about this as a some form of 70s dream sub-genre? Which would mean the fuzziness is deliberate? Which is cool if that’s the way the genre works. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t frustrating to sort through.
I mean we can start right at the title. I didn’t know what “Convalescence” meant. It’s not a word that has come up in any conversation or reading of mine for the past 30 years. And I believe it’s the writer’s job not to assume that any non-basic word is a given. It’d be nice if a character explained what was going on with Christianne without using that word.
I suppose this leads to a deeper line of questioning in regards to the expectations Levres sets for this story, namely, “If you don’t know what convalescence means, you’re not my audience anyway.” And is that approach invoked throughout the screenplay, where it’s kind of like, “If you can’t keep up, sorry not sorry.”
But I had real problems sorting out what was going on because SO MUCH was fuzzy. I’ll give you an example. About midway through the script, the characters find three dead women who were creepily embalmed. I don’t know any situation by which you find three young women dead and embalmed where there aren’t 30 policeman swarming the place within an hour and the media swooping in going crazy. But for the characters in Convalescence it was like, “Whoa, that’s weird,” and they just keep going on like it was no big deal.
That kind of thing would happen a lot where you’d say, “Wait a minute. Why are people acting this way?” Or “Why is this happening?” “Why isn’t that happening?” And I was never entirely sure. At a certain point, around page 70, I lost the will to search for logic. I figured if I couldn’t take anything at face value, what was the point in trying to make sense of things?
Again, I don’t know if this is a specific sub-genre where this kind of thing is encouraged. If it is, then I’m not the audience. But if we’re judging this strictly as a screenplay, I would’ve liked for everything to be clearer. I would’ve liked to know exactly who each character was when they were introduced. When plot points were hit, I would’ve liked for them to be hit hard and clear. For example, another WW2 film, Indiana Jones. Two guys sat Indiana down and said, “This is what you need to do, and this is why you need to do it.” And they went into extreme detail. This may seem like pandering to some. But this is the setup for your entire movie. You want your audience crystal clear on what the hero’s goal is.
I never truly knew what Michael was there for. I think he was there to diagnose Christianne to possibly re-institutionalize her? But I was never clear on why that needed to be done. I also wasn’t clear on what this previous institution Christianne was a part of was. What she was doing there. No character ever explained it satisfactorily (or clearly). And this added to the pervasive fuzziness of, basically, every plot point and character in the story.
I don’t know. It’s frustrating because I like a lot of the elements here. Mysterious woman. A past filled with secrets. Top secret medical experiments. Nazis. Hitler. All of that stuff is right up my alley. I SHOULD be the audience for this. And yet all of those plot points were buried inside of developments I only partially understood.
I would like to see Levres attempt to tell a more traditional horror story with more traditional horror beats. Even this one, but stripped away of all the wishy-washy elements and with all the plot points hit hard.
1) Michael’s bosses are mysteriously strong-arming him: We need you to go classify that this girl is insane, whether she is or not.
2) Meet the girl. She’s weird and intriguing. Something terrible happened to her. Michael wants to know what.
3) There are hints that she may have been involved in Nazi experiments.
4) There are hints that she may even be tied to Hitler himself.
5) The residents of the small town start to strong-arm Michael when Christianne reveals too much.
6) Michael is in danger. He has to get out alive. But he’s resigned to find out the truth first.
What’s wrong with a simple horror story like that? You’ve got the atmospheric writing down. You just need to write more clearly – clarifying characters and motivations and major plot points. There’s a fogginess to the writing and this story that’s obstructing what could be really cool. Then again, maybe that’s not what Levres is interested in.
Script link (updated version): From the Convalescence of Christianne Zelman
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: There’s a big misconception out there that you should be writing for yourself. Make yourself happy and you’ll write something great. Of course you should be writing stuff that interests you, but never forget that you’re writing for the reader. You’re writing to give them an entertaining experience. I think Levres was focused more on writing for himself here, and that got in the way of creating something a reader could engage in.