Genre-fying Mental Illness [I]: the Beautiful-Damaged Girl
*Contains spoilers for all films mentioned*
Film genres are forged in the way we view society, and the issues that are vital to us; beyond the elements that tie films together (thematics, for one), they emerge out of a singularly remarkable ideology, and projects wanting to express said ideologies tend to follow suit. In the Reagan era, action movies that touted hyper-masculinity made international stars out of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, while cyberpunk dystopias in Japan (like Akira (1989)) were borne out of collective anxiety regarding big-scale disasters and societal breakdown. And so on, and so forth.
This is why it’s so interesting to study another batch of movies: those that deal with mental illness. We don’t talk about “Mental Illness Films” the way we do buddy comedies and neo-noirs; and yet, this subject matter has been prevalent as long as there have been films.
I've always noted this with interest, because in the same way that romantic comedies engender subsequent discussions (about how we view and treat women, romance in society, gender roles, relationships), and in the same way that comedies bring out certain corresponding subjects (where does the line go too far? can women be funny? are some subjects sacrosanct?), movies about mental illness are critical in bringing about or furthering discussion on this issue. The way they are handled could influence the way this is talked about at large, which in turn could have real-life consequences on people dealing with it.
I’ve chosen to study this issue through movies that, firstly, have had a very intimate impact on me, in addition to having received acclaim and recognition. I’ll get to said movies in a moment. The second, and more conspicuous reason for this, is how wide ranging and distinct they are from one another: despite this fact, these are the titles that stand out when people think of dysfunction in popular culture. That, in itself, says something about my point regarding "genre-ification" (a point I’ll explore soon enough). I will say this, however: while these examples are far from being the only ones tackling the subject, I believe that in their way, they’ve not only accelerated the trend of similarly-themed films, they have also influenced the way we speak about trauma at large, concerning women especially.
Mental illness is, and remains, a taboo subject in society, despite its numerous representations in art since forever. These movies often provoke effusive reactions from critics, ranging from adulation to outright contempt, depending on the audience.
When Girl, Interrupted premiered in 1999, critic Stephen Holden wrote, attesting to the temper of the times: “Girl, Interrupted is a small, intense period piece with a hardheaded tough-love attitude toward lazy, self-indulgent little girls flirting with madness: You can drive yourself crazy, or you can get over it. The choice is yours.”
One could argue that he simply didn’t like the movie, which was his absolute prerogative, but underneath it is a more dangerous dismissal, namely of the issue at heart.
And therein lies the third reason for the writing of this essay, and the films around which I framed it. Mental illness does not discriminate, and manifests itself in equally devastating ways for everyone. But you wouldn’t know it, judging by the portrayal accorded to men, women, and non-binary people: men, for example, tend to hurt others, while women hurt themselves. This self-harm takes many forms, but all the avenues lead to the same audience reception: in these films, troubled girls are either depicted indulgently (beautiful, damaged, in distress), or else painted with a harsh, patronizing brush: they are silly, privileged, not to be taken seriously.
Talking about genre-ifying mental illness inevitably leads to the question: is it possible? On the one hand, shouldn’t these films, made by people who know what they are talking about, be given a designated space in the cultural lexicon, so that they may allow for valuable conversations? Shouldn’t "Mental Illness Films" (MIF) be its own genre, so that it may rightfully explore this taboo, and often overlooked subject?
On the other hand, I find it rather telling that these thematics are usually lumped into other genres: thrillers, dramas, psychological horror, even comedy. While it demonstrates that in real life, these often bleak issues do blend with other situations (hilarious ones, puzzling ones, passionate ones…) it is not necessarily a good thing. It is putting something so wide and diverse, — namely mental health — under an umbrella; it is pigeonholing a touchy subject; it is making a category out of something that should not be stereotyped, the way things tend to be when they are simplified.
It also occurred to me, down the road, that because of this very fact —namely that mental illness is, above all, a very intimate, multifaceted experience — this issue of genre-ification was always going to be problematic. Not everyone goes through the same thing, and thus, not everyone is going to feel represented in the same way.
But still, let me attempt to argue the point.
Onto the movies.
I chose Rachel Getting Married, The Hours, The Virgin Suicides, Black Swan, and Girl, Interrupted, in order to, sequentially:
a- study the mutability of genre throughout cinema’s history, which in turn makes the concept of MIF a possibility,
b- examine the elements that tie these five films together, making a case for genre after all,
c- contemplate the future of the concept of genre, in this era of crossovers and cross-appeal.
When we speak of “genre”, there comes to mind a body of films sharing certain categorizable elements. These said categories are clearly definable by certain cues we refer to, consciously or unconsciously: a shared atmosphere (noir films are a salient example of this), a time setting (period dramas), the medium used (animated movies), a shared narrative blueprint, and so forth. Professor John Rieder, who wrote extensively on the subject, states:
In order for a text to be recognized as having generic features, it must allude to a set of strategies, images, or themes that has already emerged into the visibility of a conventional or at least repeatable gesture. Genre, therefore, is always found in the middle of things, never at the beginning of them. (196)
As a result, the chosen films seem to almost contradict this notion. From a purely objective stance, they’re not wholly similar. Black Swan and The Hours are highly stylized (from a musical and visual standpoint), while Rachel Getting Married is much less so; the latter relies heavily on more understated music, (notably from TV On the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, who also stars in the film). The Virgin Suicides is steeped in a bygone era, with its ethereal, sepia-toned shots and its classic rock and indie soundtrack, while Girl, Interrupted, despite being chronologically adjacent (the 60’s), displays a much more sober atmosphere.
The circumstances surrounding these films’ respective productions makes these contrasts even more pronounced. The directors of Black Swan and Rachel Getting Married (Darren Aronofsky and Jonathan Demme) were already well-established at the time they became involved in these projects, which wasn't necessarily the case for the rest: The Virgin Suicides, for example, was Sofia Coppola’s first. Even the various budgets suggest disparity: Black Swan, Girl Interrupted and The Hours were developed with funds of well over $10 million; the other two were distributed by less conventional studios (Sony Pictures Classics, Pathé, Paramount Vantage).
This point isn’t interesting for the sake of it: they are pertinent to the idea of genre, when one considers that action films, for example, tend to follow certain formats when it comes to studios, budgets, and direction, and even scoring (big, or well-known names, CGI effects…), regardless of content. Similarly, horror films have historically been linked to more independent studios, lower budgets, and in the case of franchises, a veteran actor surrounded by fresh faces.
If we are, for the sake of argument, assuming that there is such a thing as a MIFs, what, then, do we make of these wide-ranging dissimilarities? A look at their respective subject matters only reinforces this question. It would appear, as was referenced above, that these five films are in fact from different genres, and only loosely connected by a common thread: that of the marginal presence of addiction and neurosis.
Black Swan tells the story of Nina, a young ballerina who lives with her oppressive mother; from the onset, she appears frail, fragile. She seems plagued with OCD, with anxiety, with disordered eating, and ultimately, as the film progresses, has a psychotic breakdown. The film is an obvious mise en abîme of Swan Lake, the narrative arc of Nina’s life becoming explicitly paralleled to it as she begins to fray. Consequently, the ballet is that around which the film revolves, at first glance, and much of the stakes center on ensuing questions: will Nina be chosen for the part? Will Beth McIntyre (the retiring prima ballerina played by Winona Ryder with chilling furor) ruin the show out of jealousy? Will Thomas, the artistic director, favor Lily over Nina? Black Swan is considered a psychological thriller, and in the grand scope of things, this seems fitting.
Girl, Interrupted, on the other hand, likens itself to a drama, at times laced with dark humor. It is an adaptation of author Susanna Kaysen’s similarly-titled memoir; in it, she describes being hospitalized at age eighteen after a suicide attempt (which she initially denies). She is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and during her eighteen-month stay at the hospital, she befriends other patients, including the magnetic Lisa.
The Hours portrays three generations of women, linked together through time by Virginia Woolf’s seminal novel, Mrs. Dalloway. The first, Virginia Woolf herself (brought to life by Nicole Kidman’s searing performance) suffers from severe mood swings. It was said much later that the writer may have been bipolar; it debilitates her personal and professional life, which is cut short when she eventually drowns herself. The second woman, Laura (interpreted by an ethereal Julianne Moore), is a 1950’s housewife who lives an apparently happy, placid life with her husband and son. She is, in reality, deeply depressed, and eventually chooses to desert her family, finding herself unable to take her own life. In the early 2000’s, the pleasant day of a woman named Clarissa (Meryl Streep, at her most heart-rending) deteriorates as her mercurial emotions cloud over. She is taking care of her writer friend who’s ill with HIV; the latter is revealed to be Laura’s adult son. He, too, takes his own life before the film ends. The Hours, similarly to Black Swan, is a story-within-a-story, this time about Woolf’s novel, which centers on the preparations for a party, during a seemingly casual day. Here, the accent is put on literature and writing which attracts and affects all the characters in some way, linking them through time.
In Rachel Getting Married, a young woman named Kym temporarily leaves rehab to attend her sister’s wedding. What was supposed to be a few days of bliss and celebration becomes rapidly tainted by prior tensions: a few years previous, an intoxicated Kym had driven her car over a bridge, causing the death of her little brother who was in the passenger seat. The film presents itself, first and foremost, as a family drama, rife with corresponding subjects such as marriage, divorce, parent-child relationships and sibling rivalries. The underlying themes of depression and addiction are subtly, and as a result, secondarily, tackled.
The Virgin Suicides is also based on a novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, describing the obsession of five adolescent boys with their neighbors, five sheltered young girls. As their domineering parents’ vice-like clutch tightens around them, the girls spiral into inconsolable despair, and they end up killing themselves, one after the other. Some have called The Virgin Suicides an auteur film, and the hazy surrealism that permeates it is probably why. Here, mental illness is almost relegated to the back-burner, in favor of the atmospherics, the aura of sensuality and mystery that envelops the Lisbon girls.
We are, then, faced with one salient theme (mental illness), which here feels scattered throughout, rather than boldly present. If it is at the core of these films, it is in such a vague way as to be completely eclipsed by the rest: namely the other genres and sub-genres present, as well as by the composite nature of these movies (independent vs. big budget, critically acclaimed vs. less well known in the lexicon).
What is more: mental illness as a genre appears too niche, too specific, when compared to the sheer volume of films dedicated to other more well-defined ones (comedy, horror). These, as I’ve mentioned before, can incorporate the theme of mental illness, without necessarily having their own genres called into question: psychological horror remains horror, for example. Better yet: Silver Linings Playbook, despite featuring two main characters dealing with grief, bipolar disorder and so on, is still considered a romantic comedy at large.
Having said all that, why should any of this negate the notion of a classifiable set of films? Indeed, despite all the elements of heterogeneity I just mentioned, a few attenuating circumstances come to mind, which greatly nuance my assertions. Two quotes in particular shed a bit of light on the matter.
Alain Ehrenberg, a French sociologist, warns that:
The notion of mental health designates a specter of problems that range from personal development … to adult and infantile psychosis. The notion, thus, is so large that it became indeterminate … . The same goes for anguish of the psychological kind. The application of these two notions is as intersecting as their essence is poorly identified.* (19)
As to the actual concept of categorization, Rieder declares:
Genres are not inert categories shared by all ... but discursive claims made by real speakers for particular purposes in specific situations … genres are never, as frequently perceived, objects which already exist in the world and which are subsequently studied by genre critics, but fluid and tenuous constructions made by the interaction of various claims and practices by writers, producers, distributors, marketers, readers, fans, critics and other discursive agents… . The critical and scholarly act of definition seems reduced … to … an assertion that the genre is whatever the various discursive agents involved in its production, distribution, and reception say it is. (191)
Hence, we have here two problems.
On the one hand, the notion of genre has often been challenged: according to some, including Rieder, its definition is fluctuating, subjective. On the other, confusion regarding mental illness could explain the difficulty in treating it as something immutable, if not realistic and all-encompassing. We’ll see in just a bit how that affects the overall question we’re trying to answer.
I said earlier that the five films gave a very disjointed impression because of many factors (format, aesthetic…). But, in the same way that comedies more or less leave us with a sense of levity, despite how different individual films may be, these five movies provoke something in audiences, and if anything, they have that in common: namely, horror, pity, sadness, uneasiness. Rieder, on this last remark, says:
Wittgenstein's notion of "family resemblance" is enormously suggestive for genre theory because it conceptualizes a grouping not based upon a single shared defining element. … these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all—but... they are related to one another in many different ways.... We see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. (194)
According to this, classifying these films under a genre isn’t so far-fetched; we could argue that mental illness is at their thematic core, and that everything else sits at the periphery, even if this periphery ends up stifling the aforementioned core. One could see this as a metaphor for the reality of living with these debilitating conditions: mental instability often goes unnoticed, in the grand scheme of things, when other, more prominent things are going on. These films show how trauma inserts itself in trivial, everyday events, regardless of age, historical setting or lifestyle: Nina is a dancer in present-day New York; Laura lives in an affluent part of 1950’s Los Angeles; Lux Lisbon, one of the “virgins”, is a teenager in 1970’s Michigan; Richard is a writer living in New York circa 2001.
And yet, each of them experience the same steep descent into depression and/or madness. This is what covertly links these seemingly mismatched individuals: ill people dealing with their illness in their own way. Genre-ification, additionally, implies a “type”, an easily classifiable character, noticeable across the board; and indeed, with the exception of Richard in The Hours, the main characters in these five films are white women, most of them under thirty.
They are all frail-looking (Nina from Black Swan, Virginia Woolf in The Hours and Susanna Kaysen in Girl, Interrupted are prime examples). They all look pale, tragic, contemplative, and aside from Lisa, played by Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted, all the characters are introverts. They are mostly asocial, whether or not they try to conceal this fact, and they inspire either fascination or confusion, especially from their family members. Rachel (Kym’s sister), Erica (Nina’s mother) and the parents of the Lisbon girls, for instance, have no idea how to deal with them. In some cases, this misunderstanding becomes downright disdain: Virginia Woolf’s cook Nelly, despite being of a lower social status, openly disrespects her.
The similarities don’t end there. They all have a painful past, which is either clearly explained (Kym’s guilt over her brother’s death) or else left to the imagination. Their narrative arcs are quasi-identical: a precarious beginning, a progressively worse disposition, a vertiginous free-fall into neurosis, and an end that is usually incendiary (Nina, Richard, the Lisbon girls).
The initial heterogeneity that I had mentioned becomes eclipsed by everything else that previously tied them together, a fact supported by the following statement from Rieder:
Studying the beginnings of the genre is not at all a matter of finding its points of origin but rather of observing an accretion of repetitions, echoes, imitations, allusions, identifications, and distinctions that testifies to an emerging sense of a conventional web of resemblances. (196)
It would hence appear that the kaleidoscopic nature of these MIFs, as I tentatively called them, is the very thing that ties them together, and makes a category out of them. This theme seems to be able to weave itself into other genres, in subtle, but still striking ways: in horror (Black Swan), in drama (The Hours), in romance (The Virgin Suicides) etc. It could be explainable by the simple fact that this shared theme designates a vast array of illnesses that, additionally, do not manifest in identical ways for everyone.
Tentatively, then, it appears that we can speak of a genre after all: the way that the common thread is manifested in these different films seems to confirm that fact.
Having said this, some see, in this very fact, the over-simplifying of the malleability of the topic (who is affected? how? why?) in order to be able to box them into a ready-made category, and shove them at the forefront of popular culture: in other words, those who’ve attempted to write and produce these films where mental illness is at the nucleus may have done it in full cognizance of the fact that they were simplifying a complex issue. The end (erasing the taboos, starting a conversation, no matter how skewed) may have been seen as a great justification for the means (manichean narratives, bankable tropes, Oscar-baiting stories).
Indeed, the people at the fore of these films aren’t always fully fleshed, multidimensional, or believable, and even when they are, there is something 'uncanny valley'-esque about them. This recalls what I mentioned earlier, about the different ways mental illness manifests itself in men, women, and non-binary people. I don’t think it a coincidence that, with a combination of women being objectified in film, and the subject matter of mental illness not being taken seriously, the end results are portrayals which either romanticize, or disparage women.
Professor Kathy Livingstone and writer Martin S. Dworkin make their own interesting points on the subject:
Some themes students found to be relevant in the films included: the use of medication and institutionalization to sedate people who displayed nonconformist behavior; films depicting a patient's rapid response to treatment and subsequent "curing" of mental illness; the portrayal of patients in psychiatric hospitals as serial killers; the common use of descriptors like "crazy," "insane," "nuts," "sociopath," "maniac," and "lunatic" in the vernacular; and the stigmatizing effect of labeling a person as their disorder with terms like "psychotic" or "psycho”. (122-123)
Sometimes, the screen refracted the careful terminologies with disconcerting imprecision. The language of the couches and clinics, often beclouded enough, seemed to have been imperfectly absorbed by the popularizers themselves. (484)
This erroneous portrayal isn’t just bothersome — it has potentially devastating effects, especially when one considers the acclaim, and subsequently, the exposure they have garnered. It suggests typecasting, which in turn suggests the propagation of the damaging preconceived notions society already has about mentally ill people.
Girl, Interrupted shows us an array of people corresponding to types we see in similar stories: the eating disorder patient, the self-harm patient, the mutely depressed patient and so forth. All the girls Susanna befriends during her stay are eccentric, impulsive, insolent. Kym in Rachel Getting Married is unpredictable, difficult, scandalous, chaotic. Virginia Woolf is shown to be volatile, uncontrollable. Clarissa is the only one who can handle her friend Richard when every one else feels venomously toward him.
Mental illness is implied to be onerous for the surrounding cast of peers, who cannot and will not burden themselves with it, while the afflicted are depicted as lit powder kegs. Of course, people like this do exist, and deserve to be part of the same conversation as those who handle their issues with composure, but to show only this manifestation of mental illness feels decidedly reductive.
And yet, only two options seem to exist in these films: suicide, or hospitalization.
Livingstone speaks at length on this very subject:
Films often distort reality. Students do not easily recognize this fact, and they can mistake what they see as being the truth … . Without guidance, viewers "get" only what the film director wants them to see … . For many …, film represents [the] main source of information about minority groups, and it often distorts ideas … hidden or invisible to the public. The distortion of images is especially problematic in films about disability …, and popular films depicting characters with mental illness often portray their symptoms inaccurately … . Negative images of people with mental illness (PWMI) in visual media such as television and film are ubiquitous …, and the popularity of "mental patient and asylum" films has been explored … . Most disturbing is the linking of mental illness with homicidal behavior, a myth that appears frequently in horror films … and the plethora of films about serial killers. Other stereotypical media images suggest that PWMI are likely to be childlike, irresponsible, incompetent, unpredictable, dangerous, and unstable; often they have unusual appearances. These … characters … cannot be taken seriously. … Popular films can facilitate sociological thinking … by showing … how images can be manipulated to perpetuate or mitigate stereotypes about PWMI and illustrating how stereotypes are related to stigma and discrimination … . (119)
On the other far end of the spectrum, romanticization is just as harmful to the realistic depiction of this issue. Case in point: a few years ago, Vice featured a spread of models posing as famous writers (Virginia Woolf included), moments before they attempted or committed suicide. The callous title: “Last Words”. It was so tasteless, so clueless, so tactless that it was taken down, after an insincere apology from Vice. But the inherent message was heard loud and clear: high art and high fashion can be made from the most harrowing, most heartbreaking moments of these women’s lives, with no one pausing to consider the baffling disrespect of it all.
Similarly, there is something slightly theatrical about some of these films, be it in the music (who can forget the gorgeous, atmospherics of Philip Glass’ score for The Hours?) or in the cinematography (Matthew Libatique’s camera work sways and waltzes dramatically around Nina as she unravels). Anguish is presented with a tinge of poetry: it is shrouded in mystery in The Virgin Suicides, and their suicide completes the deification the five boys had manufactured around them.
Depression is put on a pedestal, it is a beguiling element of their personality; even the word “virgin” cements this allegory of purity and innocence, an allegory that is reinforced in Black Swan: both film titles pit immaculacy (“virgin”, “swan”) with its antithesis (“suicide”, “black”), for a would-be clever contrast. Nina’s quest for perfection nearly destroys her, and yet, she is constantly poetized. “I just want to be perfect” is drummed throughout the film like a fevered mantra; and even when at the end, she is at the height of her frenzy and bleeding from a self-inflicted wound, Nina has attained the highest level of actualization, has finally ascended to the status of the titular Black Swan. The movie ends on he following words, as she drowns in her standing ovation and radiates with the purest euphoria [1:41:47-1:42:00]: “I felt it. … Perfect. I was perfect”. The Fall is, hence, justified by the means: namely Glory.
Professors Pierre Barrette and Catherine Mavrikakis make the following observations:
By voluntarily and decisively stepping away from a more realistic approach …, the film becomes distinctly more aesthetized. … The problem, in this case, is that the evocation of mental illness — absolutely central in the film — which results in this ostentatious veneer, loses in credibility what it gains in “flashiness”.* (44)
"Here, the pathological isn’t depicted by the theatricalization of the throes which in turn echoes an imagery of a body deteriorating. Here, the pathological is engraved in beauty itself, in the sexual attraction constituted by the body”* (24).
Every film genre reveals something about the era from which it emerges. Likewise, movies about mental illness uncover more or less intriguing trends about present and bygone cultures, which I’ll get to in an instant, and which, to some extent, nuances my point.
The pendulum, which has swung from embellishment to degradation, isn’t very surprising when we consider how mental illness has been tackled, at large, through the ages. It is a topic which alternately fascinates and terrifies, and indeed: while this treatment is unacceptable, mental illness is as delicate and fathomless as it is versatile in its manifestation.
As I’ve touched upon earlier, the mentally ill have historically and systematically been associated with murderers and criminals. Unlike action movies of the 80’s, where the enemy was external, here, it is all the more ominous because of its intrinsic, insidious nature. The helplessness the characters deal with could be an analogy for the helplessness society has always felt in handling emotional and psychological instability: evidently, mental illnesses are not treatable in the same transparent way that physical ones can be. For eons, so-called lunatic asylums were the default solution: and what a dreadful solution it was.
In the 1940’s and 1960’s, however, North America undergoes a process of deinstitutionalization, namely, according to psychologist Yves Lecompte:
A policy of humanization of the care allocated to those suffering from chronic mental disorders, which consists in reintegrating psychiatric patients in their communities, as well as helping maintain, in their environments, those citizens who endure various mental difficulties.* (34)
Whatever the motivations behind this undertaking, we can read here an effort made to collectively tackle this oft-misunderstood issue; what is more, this would explain the upsurge, around that time, of films centered on this topic.
Even so, mental illness continues to frighten, as attested by the way its portrayal becomes either tarnished or idealized. For lack of being realistic, films opt for exaggeration and sensationalism, to appeal to a mass audience, or else for poetry, in order to soften this caustic subject. “The Three Faces of Eve” (1957) earned Joanne Woodward an Academy Award for her portrayal of a woman suffering from dissociative disorder; and yet, its borderline melodramatic approach to the subject matter is, at times, almost laughable.
Dworkin comes to a similar, regrettable conclusion:
Of course, movies have to entertain. When they do not, the theaters are empty and discussions of their effects become academic. And psychiatry is no more sacrosanct a subject for the movies than is religion. (490)
It became evident for me, then, that movies dealing with mental illness have always been watched by very different people, and for very different reasons.
Those afflicted could be looking for catharsis (that borders on masochism in my personal experience); others watch these films to stimulate their compassion and educate themselves; for others, it is all about morbid curiosity, a sort of schadenfreude. It’s worth noting that Julianne Moore’s character in The Hours, Laura, is a perfect illustration of this last category of people: she lives vicariously through the character of Mrs. Dalloway, as if witnessing the nervous breakdown of the latter is the only thing stoping her from having one. It is only after she reads the book that she decides to run away, instead of taking her own life.
Indeed, madness has kindled a fascination as old as time, as art and insanity have often gone hand in hand; some have even theorized that madness begets creation. Girl, Interrupted (Susanna channels her instability into her writing), The Hours (Virginia Woolf reportedly wrote her most outstanding work at the height of mania) and Black Swan (Nina “finds” herself artistically as she loses her mind) seem to support that theory.
And on that last note: immediately following the film, many American schools saw an upsurge in registration for ballet classes, proving that despite the strong cautionary tale at its center, audiences were not put off by the calamity Nina’s transcendence entailed.
Since the dawn of time, the image of the destitute, bohemian poet who subsists on love and love alone has enchanted and mystified the imagination, without necessarily arousing sympathy, without necessarily engendering real efforts to help them in their despair [link to my article about amy winehouse]. These artists’ tragic ends only elevates them to the status of posteriority: Arthur Rimbaud, Vincent Van Gogh, Guy de Maupassant, Sylvia Plath, Charles Baudelaire, John Keats, Frederic Chopin, and many others, had heartbreaking lives and/or devastating ends, replete with mental illness, alcoholism, suicidal tendencies and violent mood swings — all of which were albatrosses for them in their living, and became their utter absolution after their passing.
Madness enchants as much as it upsets: as a result, we are constantly tugged between embellishing it in the name of art, or ignoring it entirely. From this very fact emerges the main reason why it would be so dangerous to group all these films under a common genre. When, in popular culture, these characters aren’t artists and geniuses, they are quirky troublemakers, and/or catalysts for the intrigue: killers and psychopaths, the exciting-but-mortifying instigators of chaos.
In the same way that romantic comedies have often shed unrealistic standards on love, these films offer a slanted view on mental illness. Screenwriters, directors and all those involved in the process are therefore faced with a dilemma: committing to realism and authenticity, at the risk of confusing a public that is still generally confused about how a mentally ill persona acts, and why; or else yielding to easy stereotypes, at the benefit of commercial appeal.
Dworkin makes an eerie statement on this last point:
Making long and difficult matters appear quick and easy is what we mean by oversimplification, after we have disposed of righteous disputations over the nuances of terminology. Even the Europeans, so quick to decry Hollywood's miraculizing, have made what can only be bad propaganda for psychiatry, allowing dramatic license to solve in moments problems usually needing years. … There may be fundamental opposition between the ideas of entertainment and of education-when the former is defined in the practical, popular sense of passive amusement. If so, there are limits to what can be taught deliberately in the fictional entertainment film although, of course, the attitudes the audience may develop from films are incalculable, and unpredictable. Popular entertainment, moreover, characteristically builds upon notions which have been accepted so widely and for so long, that they are assumed to be certainties although many may be mutually contradictory. Popular entertainment does not teach, but reassures-which can be construed as bad teaching, to be sure. … One difficulty, then, of the psychiatric film designed to entertain is that it must establish its assumptions, giving them the force of old ideas. A way of doing this is to couch them in a familiar form, such as the common melodrama with its accustomed opposition of good and evil, and its happy outcome. But the results are inevitably dubious, if for no other reason than that the theories and findings of science are not certainties, and may not be proposed as comforting axioms. The movie psychoanalyst usually sermonizes in much the same kind of masquerade as does the "doctor" in the cigarette or toothpaste advertisement. He either simplifies to the point of falsehood, or juggles the colored balls of a jargon to mystify the onlookers. (486-491)
I stated earlier that I would try to make a case for MIFs as a genre. But to “genre-ify” is to simplify, in some sense: tropes and clichés exist for a reason, and they manifest themselves differently depending on the type of films. It has generally been accepted that comedies will follow a certain formula, which differs from ones we can identify in science-fiction, for example. The idea of a “formula” inevitably opposes itself to realism, because life is not a formula, evidently (even if those more superstitious of us can discern some patterns).
Yet, mental illness remains controversial, in this sense, and its resistance to classification, despite the many analogous elements we could cite, and have cited (a type of character, similar themes, a comparable effect on audiences) underlines something revealing. This is telling, for the future of genre itself.
I’ll go back the the question I had initially asked: could we — and more importantly — should we genre-ify mental illness? Is it possible to crowd such a wide-ranging subject under a common denominator? Is a collective group enough to properly do justice to the theme at hand, or is a limited, unsatisfactory characterization inevitable?
The truth is that it’s always going to be hard to catalogue a genre because mental illness is not characterizable in limited ways. There is no by-the-numbers formula: I’ll even go as far as to say that there should not be a by-the-numbers formula, for the very fact that by very definition, mental illness transcends that which is normal, logical, ordered. It affects all genders, all races, all ages, all cultures; some cope with composure and silence, others do it successfully. Some manifest their turmoil physically (aggression, anger, self-harm, substance abuse), while others manage to conceal it from their peers (and even themselves) for years.
Genres, on the other hand, would have movies be boxed in more or less rigid classification, and as a result of this, films on this subject have a tendency to show only certain salient aspects, and to focus only on certain narratives: when women are the focal point, they tend to be young, generally attractive, mostly privileged, straight and Caucasian (excluding everyone else in the process). Since the perspective given is usually one-note, it follows that the films dealing with them will be one-note, especially within the boundaries of a society which is unable, or unwilling to discuss its source matter in a realistic manner.
There are, and will be continue to be Ninas, Virginias and Lux Lisbons as long as people will be willing to watch and idolize them; there are, and will continue to be Richards and Kyms and Lisas as long as there’ll be people to deride them. Film genres give us deeper insight into a shared universe of common themes, but when they contribute in reinforcing misconceptions, it’s almost preferable to do away with them altogether.
MIFs have the unique opportunity to become torchbearers and conversation starters, inspire critical thinking on the subject matter: they could, instead of romanticizing real-life issues, show that mental illness is a serious, unenviable condition; they could, instead of casting a withering light on these individuals, showcase how best to be compassionate, thoughtful, helpful.
Rachel Getting Married has often been hailed as one of the rare films that realistically portrays grief and depression: Kym is unlike Nina who, in her Fall, remains beautiful; she is unlike Susanna who, after having seen madness up front for nearly a year, comes out of it almost cured; she is unlike the Lisbon sisters whose suicide crystalizes their apotheosis; and finally, she is unlike Virginia Woolf, who lived and died for her art. Through Anne Hathaway’s masterful embodiment, Kym is at times raw and hideous, but never to excess. She remains a woman, at odds with her own emotions, and her future is left wholly to the interpretation, at the end.
Livingstone's observation on this subject:
College students gain most of their knowledge about mental illness from various media sources (Granello, Pauley, and Carmichael 1999). Media representations are often criticized for their unrealistic portrayal of psychiatric disorders, the negative stereotypical images they provide, and the myths they perpetuate about mental illness. Popular films not only reflect cultural beliefs about PWMI but affect them. Because films with psychiatric themes are so numerous, film-based-assignments on them have been used in psychology, education, and mass communications courses at colleges across the United States. In a sociology course, it makes sense to use rather than avoid stereotypes as presented in film; such a process enables students to question attitudes and beliefs they have developed as consumers of mass media. ... Mass media, particularly feature films, provide information about minority groups; but if that information is inaccurate, it serves students well to correct their vision by learning how to view these cultural artifacts critically. (124)
… which brings in question the concept of the film genre in the modern era. The “ultragenrification”, as it has been called in French, refers to the strict separation of films into categories, in the 70’s and 80’s, as blockbusters and new cinematic trends emerged.
The last few decades have seen many crossovers: horror/comedy (Shaun of the Dead), romance/Sci-fi (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World), fantasy/comedy (What We Do In The Shadows), etc. It may be that movies on mental illness truly flourished during a time when genres were starting to blend and lose that “ultra” moniker. Maybe if they had been as prevalent 80 years ago as they are now, they’d have evolved very differently indeed.
Presently however, audiences seem more reticent to categorize movies, due in part to how open we are to crossovers. New sub-genres are constantly cropping up, to the great delight of critics and moviegoers alike; this, combined with the versatility of mental illness as a theme, could explain why it’s so hard to accept or reject the idea of a category solely dedicated to a certain type of films. What this soft resistance to rigid confines means for the future of Cinema will be discernible as the effects are revealed.
Translated from French, including quotations marked with (*)
Dworkin, Martin S. (1954). « Movie Psychiatrics », The Antioch Review, Vol. 14, No. 4, pp. 484-491.
Ehrenberg, Alain (2005). « La plainte sans fin. Réflexions sur le couple souffrance psychique/santé mentale », Cahiers de recherche sociologique , n° 41-42, p. 17-41.
Livingston, Kathy (2004). « Viewing Popular Films about Mental Illness through a Sociological Lens », Teaching Sociology, Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 119-128.
Rieder, John (2010). « On Defining SF, or Not: Genre Theory, SF, and History », Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 37, No. 2, pp. 191-209.