Demonic possession may just be the number one plot device for genre directors to use when discussing mental health in their films. It’s easy; is this person just mentally unstable or is this the work of Lucifer himself?
It’s undoubtedly an effective way to frame your story, but also a tad lazy nowadays. In Mastemah, director Didier D. Daarwin draws an uneven, uncomfortable line between mental health troubles and potential possession. Young psychiatrist Louise (Camille Razat) relocates to a small village after she witnesses a horrendous tragedy. She begins treating Théo (Olivier Barthélémy), who suffers from severe nightmares, but Louise soon begins to believe that something much more evil is going on as she begins to lose her grip on reality.
Mastemah starts off strong; the premise is intriguing and ripe for creepy imagery and disturbing moments. For a while, it just seems that Mastemah is a slow-burning horror, one that will – and must! – increase in intensity, hopefully leading to a bonkers, wild finale. Unfortunately, Mastemah is much too understated and tame for its own good.
Camille Razat, known for Netflix’s Emily in Paris, is impressive as the psychiatrist who is slowly, but surely descending into madness. Louise is clearly unstable, but Razat never resorts to hysteria. She gracefully portrays the erratic, slippery reality of someone who is losing grip on what’s real and what’s not.
The plot moves forward often a little too fast, while nothing particularly exciting happens. This leads to a narrative that feels rushed, where the drama and conflict aren’t allowed to organically develop and simmer. Not to mention, the ending is frustratingly predictable but also strangely unclear with what it tries to say about Louise or her relationship with Théo.
Daarwin’s direction is often a little manic and the editing of Mastemah is equally unpredictable. The film is highly stylized, but it doesn’t seem to communicate anything further. While Daarwin maintains an appropriately spooky atmosphere, the scares aren’t consistent enough to create a coherently scary experience.
And then there’s the old juxtaposition of mental health and pure evil. It’s an old, tired trope and while it can provide a wonderful way of examining our deepest, darkest impulses, here it’s mostly just an uncomfortable example of how we still link violence and mental health. In Mastemah, mental health problems are still something mysterious and terrifying, leading to nothing but death and destruction.
Yet, Mastemah is still a very enjoyable film, mostly thanks to Razat’s committed performance. There are glimpses of a better film here and Daarwin demonstrates decent knowledge and understanding of how to craft thrills. Mastemah never reaches its full potential, but for a first time filmmaker like Daarwin, it’s a pretty good start.