After taking a deliberate overdose of sleeping pills, Veronika wakes in a bed, in a mental care facility called Vilette. Her suicide attempt has failed, and she’s alive. But she’s weakened her heart with her attempt, and is likely to die within the week.
This is how the story of Veronika Decides to Die begins. Veronika’s attempted suicide is a mystery to those around her – this young and attractive girl with a great job and comfortable life hardly seems the candidate to take her own life. A letter she writes to a magazine before her overdose is a red herring, deciphered as such by some, and others are fooled. Veronika has her reasons, but, like a lot of things about her, she keeps them to herself.
In Vilette, a privately owned care facility that houses patients of varying diagnoses, she learns that she can live almost however she wants to – there are few rules or mores to follow when everyone’s already deemed you mad. This newfound freedom instils something dangerous in her – the will to live.
Veronika Decides to Die is a 2009 film based on a 1998 novel by Paulo Coelho. I’ve not read Coelho’s other work (he’s most famous for The Alchemist, a novel that held the record for the most number of translations around the world, such was its bestselling prowess) but I have read this novel.
The film is a low-key affair. Sarah Michelle Gellar takes on the role of Veronika, and creates a quiet girl who’s spent her whole life not saying what she wants, finally in a position to say it. Gellar’s career since the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has seen many misfires or ignored films – ignored either because of their lack of promotion, or lack of quality. This film belongs to the former category.
With the right amount of backing, this film could have been a sleeper indie hit. Gellar’s performance is strong, as are many of her co-stars, particularly Melissa Leo as Mari, a long-time patient of Vilette who holds herself with a bewitching calm, and David Thewlis as Dr Blake, the head psychiatrist in Vilette who gives the impression he’s had enough of mad people and their self-indulgence.
This is the rare film that portrays an institution like Vilette in a positive light. It’s not perfect, and the nurses and orderlies are quick to sedate rather than talk with their patients. But it’s not a barren institution of sadism or corruption, or an allegory for dehumanising bureaucracy. Veronika is not a girl interrupted, nor is she a flown-over cuckoo’s nest.
She clearly has problems, however much she might like to baulk at that idea, and although her circumstances may be too late for the discovery, a place like Vilette allows her to discover and acknowledge them.
It’s not a morbid or depressing story, nor a maudlin exercise in pathos. Much as it can be, and it does try to be, the film is quite life affirming. Veronika’s looming mortality, brought about too quickly for someone her age, and taking too long for her suicidal intent of ending her life on her own terms, is a chance to at least experience the things she’s held herself off from. The path of ennui that leads to her unfulfilling life she’s so keen to bring a rapid close to at the beginning of the story is paved with the results of having lived a life that doesn’t allow her to experience any difference.
The monologue that opens the film, in which Veronika details with calm reasoning and patient clarity just why her life has nothing to hold dear is a masterpiece of quiet fury, and just a little heartbreaking.
The film is pensive and bittersweet. It’s not an exercise in false profundity, but a quiet movie that chronicles the plight of a young woman as she comes to understand that death is there to finish a life, not to rid oneself of the burden of living.
The novel it’s based on is a different matter. The framework is there, some of the characters too – many are renamed alongside the movie’s change of setting from Slovenia to New York. Veronika and Mari remain, but Dr Igor becomes Blake, fellow patient Zedka becomes Veronika’s roommate Claire (Erika Christensen) and the silent schizophrenic Eduard becomes Edward (Jonathan Tucker).
I assume much of the novel has been lost in translation, as Coelho is Brazillian and did not write the book in English. It’s a tiresome read, made up of prose that aims for whimsical poignancy but lands on pretension, and stilted dialogue that can almost solely be blamed on a rigid translation.
The novel’s setting of Slovenia allows for some unique points of view about how European conflict (in this case, the breakdown of Yugoslavia) can shape and affect a story, even if it’s not the main focus. While this is interesting, and made up some of the book’s better parts, the overall story has not lost anything by shedding this in the film.
The biggest difference is Veronika herself. In the film, she’s a troubled woman who you feel for, even if you don’t quite understand her. As the novel’s protagonist, she’s unlikeable and alienating, a character whose irrationality comes not necessarily from madness or her troubles, but from a woeful misjudgement of her own selfishness being the same as depth.
There’s a nice moment in the film, where Veronika is told that she’s going to die of her weakened heart, and she asks how long she has. When she’s told it’s only a week, she asks, “I have to wait that long?” and it’s a moment that shows she’s scared and vulnerable, but determined to convince herself that she isn’t (it’s also an indicator of how good Gellar’s performance is in the smaller moments, as opposed to some later scenes).
The equivalent scene in the novel has a doctor informing Veronika of the same, and she interprets his bedside manner as taking joy in delivering this news, and she is defiant, purely to spite him. This isn’t necessarily a bad way to write the scene, but there are moments like this all through the novel, before we have the chance to understand her as a character and it means we never do. She simply changes from suicidal to yearning for life in a moment’s notice, and the lack of time put into her growth means it’s a jarring switch.
The film on the other hand, condenses a lot of the novel’s tendency to sidetrack into character backstories and streamlines it into a clear narrative (one gets the impression that Coelho found himself wanting to tell an anthology story but had already decided on the title naming Veronika the protagonist).
Having said that, it’s nice to see how much the film contains that is relevant for anyone who’s read the novel (which of course expands on a lot of the characters’ motivations or feelings, or reasons for being in Vilette) as a cursory acknowledgement of the condensed story.
It’s not a perfect film however. I mentioned that this could have been a surprise indie hit if the film had had the right marketing, but I suspect director Emily Young was hoping for this, as some scenes (particularly one where Veronika opens up to Dr Blake about her unbridled rage at the state of the world, since dubbed the “I hate” scene) feel like they’re shot purely to appear as an Oscar clip. Her more obvious moments of direction distract, and the performances are brought down with it; Gellar’s performance, though admirable, is a bit weak in this previously mentioned scene.
Another curious misfire is casting Jonathan Tucker as the schizophrenic Edward. In the novel he’s decidedly silent, choosing who and when he will speak to someone. As a result of this, he’s learned how to communicate largely with his eyes, and it’s his eyes that let him communicate what he’s feeling to Veronika. In the film, it comes off more that he’s mute as a result of his schizophrenia, and although Tucker does his best with the role, it’s undeniable that “communicating with his eyes” means wearing the one same facial expression for almost the entire movie.
I mentioned in my rant disguised as a review of Seven Pounds that this film managed to capture the tone of easing melancholy that that turkey of a film so clearly strived for, and I stand by it. Although the ending will be obvious to a great many, Veronika Decides to Die is a story that pays off its characters’ unhappy lots in life with growth and development. Much as I didn’t care for the novel, it’s only right to point out that it manages to do the same, only in a much more aimless way.
The film is very much worth a look, if not only because it takes a lot of standard tropes and conventions from similarly stories of psychologically troubled characters and humanise them in way that’s very much welcome. Gellar’s performance is strong, as are the others in the film (except an able-but-underused turn from Erika Christensen as Claire, and a miscasting in the form of Jonathan Tucker). And although it wears its intentions on its sleeves far too often, it’s a well put together film that manages to be a much more accessible version of a frustrating book (although I admit that the problems I have with the novel may just be matters of taste, or getting hung up on the stilted translations).
It’s not a film that will change your life, but it’s a welcome addition to it, if even for a little while.