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A Magazine for Sheffield

Mental Health in Film.


There's a scene at the core of Andrzej Zulawski's 1981 film Possession that will stay with you forever, if you ever dare to enter one of cinema's most powerful descents into madness.

In what turns out to be an extended flashback in which Isabelle Adjani's character has a very unnatural miscarriage, we see her walking through a tunnel, beginning to laugh uncontrollably, throwing herself from side to side, swinging her shopping bag until it smashes against the walls and screeching as she rolls around incessantly amidst the spilled contents, with blood and green secretions pouring out of each orifice. Certainly not for the faint-hearted.

My acquaintance with this gem of a film came at an unnecessarily young age, I must admit. It was only a decade or so later that I managed to overcome the trauma of such early exposure and discern its unquestionable cinematic value.

What starts as a perceptive insight into marital life - with all its unspoken mental erosions - gradually becomes a hyperbolic study of physical estrangement and of the fundamental scission between men and women. The emotional tragedy that pervades the film doesn't lie solely in the husband's continual, visceral need to pursue 'his female', or in her disregard of such dependence. It also comes from her awareness of the source of it all - the physiological paradox that makes her a simultaneously destructive and reproductive creature. And yes, there is a creature...

The horror aspects intensify as we go along and serve to underline the unravelling incompatibility between husband and wife. But they are also a step-up from what is quintessential in Zulawski's work: narratives punctuated by character-driven eruptions.

Often in his films, emotional states reach such a level of intensity that the only release is to have something drastic happening - be it to the characters or their immediate surroundings - and emphasise it further with the filmmaking. Possession is almost a text book of this technique and is evidence of a filmmaker understanding the full potential of the art form.

Acting and casting may be crucial in the success of this cult film - with Sam Neill's ability to convey menace and vulnerability in equal measures and Adjani's porcelain-perfect appearance terrifyingly suggesting rotten depths - but it's up to the filmmaking's embrace of its subject matter to raise it above the genre constraints and present us with a challenging view of the frailty of the human mind.



Jack Nicholson and Jennifer Lawrence's backstage flirting at last February's Academy Awards was well matched in more than just allure: both have won an Oscar for playing mad people. Yet, while One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) was defiantly anti-psychiatry, implying that madness was a rational response to the modern world, Silver Linings Playbook (2012) is more diplomatic, offering the formula: meds + awareness = the best combination for recovery.

Silver Linings Playbook joins The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) and It's Kind of a Funny Story (2010) in dragging mental illness into public debate. Along with Shame (2011), this is one of few films treating nymphomania and manic depression without titillation (see also Lars Von Trier's Melancholia). Despite director David O Russell's occasional 'perving', likeable Tiffany (played by Lawrence) is shown as vulnerable but vivacious. In cold counterpoint, Michael Fassbender's germ-phobic man-whore in Shame is functional but callous. "I find you disgusting. I find you inconsolable. I find you invasive," intones Fassbender's boss, neatly summarising society's perception of mental illness: unpalatable, tragic and threatening.

Traditionally, Hollywood treats madness in extremes, from kooky 'manic' pixie dream girls to insanely over-the-top villains pitted against sane superheroes, conflating mental illness with sexual power or evildoing. Society thus sets itself up as the happy medium, despite evidence of a continuum: the periodic re-writing of diagnostic criteria, codified in the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V due in May) and the International Classification of Diseases in Europe, testifies to the mobile goalposts of madness.

Diagnosis hinges on interpretation, but instead of surer ways of telling 'us' from 'them', we need to understand that illness is only health to a lesser or greater extent. Significantly, 2013 sees the rise of the 'rehabilitated other'. Warm Bodies and BBC3's In The Flesh depict zombies making the painful journey back into society. This marks a paradigm shift in pop culture, away from irredeemable and inhuman anti-heroes, towards the possibility of an enlightened society. The message: repatriate the 'other' in ourselves.

Despite these gains, mental illness, like social phobia and body dysmorphic disorder, remains underrepresented in pop culture. Ultimately, Silver Linings Playbook marks an overdue achievement for mental health awareness, its true value lying not in the realistic depiction of mental illness - this is still Hollywood, after all - but in the perception shift it demands of its viewers.

This Month At The Showroom.

Monday 29th April
Dir. David France | 2012 | USA | 2hrs


Faced with their own mortality, an improbable group of young people, many of them HIV positive young men, became radical warriors taking on the medical establishment, infiltrating the pharmaceutical industry and helping identify promising new drugs. Oscar-nominated documentary including a Skype Q&A with director David France.


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