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In 1937, at the Lyons View State Asylum in New Orleans, Louisiana, Dr. John Cukrowicz performs a delicate experimental surgery known as a lobotomy. After the primitive conditions at the institution nearly derail the operation, however, John threatens to return to his practice in Chicago. In response, Dr. Hockstader, the head of Lyons View, shows John a letter from wealthy widow Mrs. Violet Venable, offering financial assistance in return for a meeting with the venerable surgeon. That afternoon, John visits Violet at her mansion in the Garden District, where she makes a grand entrance by descending in an elaborate, cage-like elevator. John is surprised by his benefactor's relative youth and by her obsession with her deceased son Sebastian. In the mansion's jungle-like garden, which Sebastian modeled after Michelangelo's "Dawn of Creation," Violet asks John to perform a lobotomy on her niece Catherine Holly, who she claims is suffering from visions and hallucinations. Catherine has been confined at St. Mary's, but has offended the nuns who run the hospital with her violence and obscenities. Violet is particularly distressed by Catherine's babbling a stream of obscenities regarding her son Sebastian, who Violet asserts, has "seen the face of God." After Violet describes a trip with Sebastian to the Galapagos Islands, where they witnessed flesh-eating birds devour newly hatched sea turtles, she tells John that she traveled with Sebastian every summer, except for the last one, when Sebastian went with Catherine and died of a heart attack on the day that Catherine lost her mind. Because Violet implies that her contribution to Lyons View is contingent upon Catherine receiving a lobotomy, John goes to St. Mary's to interview his prospective patient. There, Catherine insists that she is sane and portrays Violet's relationship with her son as unnatural. When John asks her about Sebastian's death, Catherine becomes hysterical and is only able to recall a white-hot beach and the pounding noise of tin musical instruments. John arranges for Catherine to be transferred to Lyons View, where Hockstader informs him that Violet has agreed to donate $1,000,000 on the condition that John lobotomize Catherine. At Lyons View, Catherine is allowed to wear her own clothes and live in the nurses' wing. When Catherine's mother Grace and brother George come to visit her, Grace tells John that Violet was shaken after receiving a letter from the authorities regarding Sebastian's death. After Grace asks to speak to her daughter alone, John leaves the room, and once he is gone, George confides to Catherine that Sebastian left them $100,000 in his will, but that Violet has decided to block probate until Grace signs the consent form for the lobotomy. Distraught, Catherine runs from the room and blunders into the men's ward, where her presence sparks a riot. After being rescued by an attendant, Catherine asks John if he plans to lobotomize her, and he appeals to her to trust him. Once she is sedated, Catherine mumbles about Sebastian's appetite for blondes and his treatment of people like "items on a menu." Violet then comes to speak to John, and after handing him a volume of Sebastian's poetry, explains that each year during their summer travels, Sebastian would write a poem. When John asks her about the letter from the Spanish authorities, she vehemently denies receiving it and says she was sent only a death certificate. John then asks Violet to see Catherine, who is just awakening from her sedation. When Violet accuses Catherine of usurping Sebastian's affection, Catherine retorts that he used them both as procurers, and after Violet became too old and unattractive, he decided to use Catherine as his bait. Becoming hysterical, Violet implores John to "cut that hideous story out of Catherine's brain," then faints. Agitated, Catherine wanders onto the balcony of the women's ward and is about to jump when an attendant restrains her. Pressured by Violet, Hockstader insists that John perform the lobotomy the following day, but John asks him for one last chance to jar Catherine's memory. The next day, John, Hockstader and a nurse escort Catherine to the Venable home, where John has arranged to meet Grace and George. After administering truth serum to Catherine, John leads her into the garden and prods her to remember what happened that last summer. After recalling that Sebastian suddenly announced that he was taking her and not his mother to Europe, Catherine revisits the events of that fateful summer: As they traveled through Italy, Sebastian became increasingly restless, and by the time they reached Spain, he had abandoned his nighttime soirees for afternoons at the public beach. One day, Sebastian forced Catherine to wear a bathing suit that when wet, became transparent. As men came to leer at Catherine's body, hungry young boys swarmed Sebastian, who passed out tips to lure them into the bathhouse with him. While Catherine and Sebastian were seated at a restaurant one blazing white day, hungry boys, barred from the establishment by a wire fence, began calling for bread. After Sebastian derided them as little beggars, the children began to serenade them with tin cans and brass plates. Agitated, Sebastian stormed out of the restaurant and started up a steep street, walking faster and faster in panic. Chased by the urchins, Sebastian became trapped in a maze of narrow streets. After ascending a "steep white street," Sebastian found himself in some ruins at the top of a hill where he was overtaken and devoured by the frenzied crowd. Upon completing her recitation of that terrible day, Catherine finds that her memory has suddenly been restored. The revelation about her son's true sexuality is too much for Violet, however, who loses her mind and comes to think that John is Sebastian. John calms Violet, then returns to the garden where he takes Catherine's hand and hand in hand, they walk toward the house.