can you direct depression?

How the film industry depicts mental health issues.

by Sarah Raphael
04 May 2015, 1:05pm

The Virgin Suicides

You could blame Jeffrey Eugenides for never explaining it, Sofia Coppola for following suit, or Kirsten Dunst for all that blonde hair, but someone involved in The Virgin Suicides wrapped up suicide and what it takes to get there in much too pretty paper. The first scene of the film features 13-year-old Cecilia Lisbon, "the first to go", a pretty girl in a pink blood bath staring serenely into… the camera. It's a gorgeous book and beautifully realized film, but the mystery, glamour and desire that shrouds the Lisbon sisters and every move they make, seen through the horny gaze of the neighborhood boys, is a tad romantic.

It's a problem that a lot of films and artistic impressions of mental illness fall down on, particularly in the coming-of-age genre. Take Girl Interrupted, Thirteen, Silver Linings Playbook, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and you start to see the trend for exclusively beautiful, tortured people, who more often than not fall in love, learn a lesson and move on at the end. There are those harrowing scenes that feel true to life: the ones that cut through you, it's just that they're so… well directed. When Winona Ryder finds Brittany Murphy hanging in her bathroom in Girl Interrupted, the song End of the World by Skeeter Davis is playing on a loop. It's a beautifully curated, horrible moment. The comments under the scene on YouTube include: "Really, i can't see this without cry. That song, that kitten", "Winona Ryder is gorgeous!", "What's this song called? ;D" and "RIP Britney". This scene in this film where she acts her death is dangerously close to becoming more tragic in the hearts of the film-watching public than her actual death, at the age of 32, when she was found in her bedroom. 

The Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook is by all accounts authentic, in particular the scene where Pat (Bradley Cooper) searches for his wedding video in the attic, the scene where he hears his trigger song in the street with Jennifer Lawrence, and the scenes in consultation with his psychiatrist. The film and the acting accurately illustrate the way that people affected by mental health and who suffer from bi-polar disorder in particular, can go from being absolutely charming, funny and happy to extremely distressed in a matter of seconds. But what happens? Aside from being funny and dark in Oscar-worthy measure, it's just another happy ending: everyone's fine, they find love in a hopeless place and do really well in the dance competition. It's optimistic to the point of unrealistic.

The other option, is death. Anton Corbijn's black and white rendition of Ian Curtis's suicide is devastating…ly well directed. It's so, so beautiful - who doesn't want to walk to work looking like Sam Riley, smoking a cigarette and wearing a punk jacket that says HATE on the back? It's a styling masterpiece. And it's accurate and authentic and depressing - well, it's true. It's just that again, the style and skill of it all is just a bit too beautiful. As Samantha Morton (who plays Ian's young wife) finds his body, and collapses out of the front door, Joy Division's song called - wait for it - Atmosphere, starts playing.

There's the final scene of Requiem for a Dream, in which Jared Leto loses his arm to drugs, Jennifer Connelly turns to prostitution, their mate is shivering in prison, and the mum, played by Ellen Burstyn, is in a psych ward having lost her mind, fantasizing about a TV show while her sweet friends hug in despair outside on a bench. It's the darkest thing ever, but extreme and over-dramatized; the kind of thing you think is really profound when you're 18 and then realize later on that it's not.

The darkest scene to enter the color-bright world of Wes Anderson is when Richie Tenenbaum from The Royal Tenenbaums starts to shed himself, cutting off his hair and shaving his beard in one scene before staring at the mirror and saying "I'm going to kill myself tomorrow". It's very powerful, made ever more so by Elliott Smith's hypnotic Needle in the Hay.

The fairest portrayal I've seen is The Hours, where Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore deliver heartbreakingly accurate scenes of depression and suicidal feelings. Not even the dramatic Phillip Glass soundtrack over-arts it.

Lars von Trier gets it right, too. In Melancholia, Kirsten Dunst plays a woman suffering from depression who has it all, but can't enjoy it, while her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is logical and happy. Then the world ends and it's the normal, sane Charlotte who freaks out, while the depressed Kirsten is able to accept her fate and support her sister and nephews as a planet comes at them and wipes them out. Von Trier's earlier film, Festen, about a rich dysfunctional family whose fourth child has killed herself, features another heart-stoppingly beautiful scene where the older sister reads out the younger sister's suicide note. "I know it will fill your life with darkness", it says, "I have tried to ring you, but I know you're busy."

A friend of mine went to Oxford university to study English Literature and was asked in his interview, "Can tragedy be beautiful?" He said "yes", and enjoyed a three year degree. These artistic depictions of mental health that we pore over in adolescence naturally form our opinions and ideas, or let's say morbid fantasies, about a subject that - if you've ever experienced first hand - you will know doesn't feel like a scene in a film. There's no soundtrack, no 1.5 hour running time, and no fresh-faced Winona Ryder to break the fall. Not that there's anything pretentious or inappropriate about any of these scenes, I only know them because they are my favorite scenes in my favorite films. It's that they're too perfectly packaged; too well-done, and the results have the potential to glamorize mental health issues, which could - I'm not saying it has - misinform people with its one-or-the-other ending format: love and happiness, or death. There's no in-between, where most people who are affected by mental health issues live.

The final scene of The Virgin Suicides focuses back on the neighborhood boys. The narrator gives the final thought and it is, after all, a very realistic (albeit excessively eloquent) conclusion that could be felt by anyone who's suffered from or been close to someone who suffers from mental health issues.

"So much has been said about the girls over the years, but we have never found an answer. It didn't matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn't heard us calling, still do not hear us calling them out of those rooms, where they went to be alone for all time and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together."


Still from The Virgin Suicides

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Kirsten Dunst
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