This week, Director Tanya Wexler takes a light look at the subject of mental health with her acclaimed comedy, Hysteria. However, as Greg Evans discovers, while some film makers have laughed in the face of adversity, others have tackled the topic of mental health head on, with films which are brave, breathtaking and sometimes plain bizarre.
This week, Director Tanya Wexler takes a light look at the subject of
mental health with her acclaimed comedy, Hysteria. However, as Greg Evans
discovers, while some film makers have laughed in the face of adversity, others
have tackled the topic of mental health head on, with films which are brave,
breathtaking and sometimes plain bizarre.
Psychological illnesses have been a long-standing topic for filmmakers.
And, despite being such a sensitive and controversial subject, many movies that
tackle themes of madness and despair, do so with insight and integrity.
Although few make for easy Saturday night viewing, most not only provide a
fascinating insight into mental health but also give actors a chance to really
shine. Think of Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest and Natalie Portman in Black Swan. Both won Oscars for their portrayal of complex and
challenging characters who may – or may not – be suffering from a mental
disorder. But with so many great films to choose from, which are the best?
The Internet’s favourite meme Nicolas Cage, is a much maligned and
criticised actor of late. A string of awful films, combined with some shocking
acting, has potentially ruined Cage’s overall image. Yet, there was one film
where his exuberant style worked wonders. After a one-night stand with a
mysterious woman, Peter Loew begins to suspect that he is turning into a
vampire. Cue lots of shouting, crying, running, screaming and killing. Cage’s
performance probably wasn’t supposed to be funny originally but the sheer
hilarity of it all means that this is one of the more enjoyable films to cover
the subject of insanity.
Quite often, with films about the onset of madness, it tends to be a
woman who is struck down with the illness. Films like Girl Interrupted and A
Dangerous Method have shown us an array of compulsions suffered by, quite
frequently, beautiful women. This isn’t a new trend, though, as Roman Polanski proved back in 1965 with
Repulsion. Carol, played by Catherine
Deneuve, becomes increasingly paranoid and delusional when left alone by
her sister. Her descent into madness is creepy and frightening in places as she
begins to give in to her fears. The backdrop of swinging 1960’s London only
serves to heighten her madness.
American Psycho (Main Picture)
American Psycho depicts a unique, internal type of disorder. Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman is a
young, rich and arrogant banking executive who has a couple of secret vices.
One of these just happens to be murder. Or is it? Behind Bateman’s eccentric,
meticulous and confident persona lies a crippling obsession which is driving
him to a mental breakdown, unnoticed by his peers. Bale plays the role superbly
and allows the film to show a very different take on a psychopath.
He may be one of the greatest and most idolized characters in movie
history but Travis Bickle is a man on the cusp of insanity. Suffering from
insomnia, loneliness and lacking the basic skills to communicate with anyone,
he roams around New York City in his taxicab for hours on end. Disgusted at
what he sees on the streets and the failures of politicians, Travis is on a
one-man mission to wipe out the scum and villainy that is ruining his country. De Niro’s range in Taxi Driver, from
the quietly deranged to the ultra violent, shows just how complicated and mixed
up Bickle is.
Much like Christian Bale in American Psycho, Edward Norton concocts his own worlds and narratives in Fight Club,
with catastrophic consequences. Norton plays a bored and depressed office
worker whose life is turned around when he meets the charismatic Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). The pair share similar
outlooks and contempt for every day life which eventually leads them to set up
their own underground fighting club. Both men are crazy in contrasting ways.
Norton is paranoid and hateful, while Pitt’s Durden is cocky and confident but
ultimately self-destructive. As fight club spirals out of control, the ‘truth’
is about to be epically – and explosively – revealed.
Through A Glass Darkly
Ingmar Bergman made several films about madness, all of which were
significant achievements in directing. Persona
was a surreal and disturbing look at madness in two women. Hour Of The Wolf was about a troubled and haunted artist – a film
which marked the directors first and only venture into horror. However, Through
A Glass Darkly is a completely different story compared to its predecessors.
After returning from a stay in a mental hospital, Karin moves back in with her
family on their own personal island. Slowly, though, she begins to relapse into
a delusional state and looses grip on reality. Quiet and contemplative, Through
A Glass Darkly is a more considerate take on the sadness of mental illness.
These days if you need an actor who can pull off an intense and crazy
character with ease, then you go to Michael
Shannon. In recent years, Shannon has taken the lead in films like Take Shelter and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, in which both of his characters
show clear signs of going mad. Whenever Shannon is given a role like this he
seems to revel in it. None more so than in William
Freidkin’s Bug. A war veteran is convinced his body is infected with genetically
enhanced bugs and drags an unsuspecting woman into his world of insanity. Bug
is an intense and delirious look at mental instability that is criminally
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
When the Twin Peaks TV series ended in 1991, so many questions were left
unanswered that people cried out for more. So when a movie was released, fans
were giddy with excitement. Except that Director and Twin Peaks creator, David Lynch, had very different idea
about what a Twin Peaks films should be like. Lynch decided to tell the story
of the last week in the life of Laura Palmer; a key character who was never in
the actual series. What we discover is that Palmer’s life is a misery. Ruined
by drugs, sex and bad company, Laura is driven mad by everything and everyone
around her and the whole film plays out like a Greek tragedy. Initially, Fire
Walk With Me was shunned by critics and fans but it has since become a much
more respected film. Sheryl Lee’s realisation
of Laura Palmer is now considered one of the greatest modern horror
Recently toppling the great Citizen
Kane from the top of the BFI’s greatest films of all time list, Hitchcock’s Vertigo is a film whose
status continues to grow and grow. A retired detective, John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson
(James Stewart), become increasingly
obsessed with a friend’s wife after being asked to investigate her activities.
While it is initially feared that the wife, Madeline (Kim Novak), is going insane, it actually ends up that John is the
one on the verge of madness. Madness isn’t the only mental illness explored in
Vertigo. Ideas of paranoia and possession are depicted along with a fear of
heights (acrophobia) which plays a key role in the story. One of the best
things that Hitchcock achieved, here, was to actually be able to visualize
those fears in a serious and artistic manner. All these elements contribute to
a rich and thoroughly rewarding experience that cements Alfred Hitchcock as one
of, if not the greatest director ever.
When Lars Von Trier released Anti-Christ, immediate comparisons were
made with this notorious French film. Originally banned in the UK, as it was
misguidedly considered to be a Video Nasty, Possession is a film far beyond any
of the cheap B-movie horrors that came out in that period. Possession is the
story of a failed marriage between Mark (Sam
Neill) and Anna (Isabelle Adjani) whose
relationship has broken down to the extent they can barely talk to each other
and are essentially driving each other mad. Although they aren’t communicating
in any normal way, it doesn’t mean that they can’t scream at each other, and
there is a lot of screaming in this film. Probably about 50% of the movie
involves somebody screaming. One particular scene involves Adjani walking
through a subway, screaming at the top of her lungs and eventually having some
sort of alien miscarriage. However what Possession is best known for is Anna’s
relationship with a tentacled monster in her apartment. (Yes, you read that
correctly.) The monster was designed by renowned special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, and, due to the
disturbing nature of the imagery, Rambaldi still finds it a difficult film to
talk about. Possession is quite clearly a horror film in places but it is
mainly a drama about the trauma that a parents’ separation can cause a child.
Both lead characters are clearly going insane and in watching Possession, you
could be forgiven for going a little mad yourself.