14.00. a woman under the influence (1974), r. john cassavetes 150'
16.30. the tenant (1976), r. roman polanski 126'
14.00. the butcher boy (1997), r. neil jordan 105'
16.00. woyzeck (1979), r. werner herzog 77'
17.30. through a glass darkly (1961), r. ingmar bergman 89'
14.00 david and lisa (1962), r. frank perry 95'
15.45. family life (1971), r. ken loach 103'
17.30. last life in the universe (2003), r. pen-ek ratanaruang 103'
14.00 opium (2007), r. jános szász 110'
16.00 betty blue (1986), r. jean-jacques beineix 152'
The camera, on the way into the bedroom, still, takes Betty and Zorg in bed. Their bodies are joined, but, unlike porn01, we have here a bit of documentary, the two of them in their passion appear at moments awkward, but their dedication to one another is unquestionable. The camera enters the room, starts circling slowly and simulates our entry into their lives. Improbable situations wait for Betty and Zorg, marvellous and painful, insane, driving them crazy. Life situations. Through the bodies of the protagonists we arrive at their lives, the wrongness of their minds. The film, known world-wide as Betty Blue, in the French original 37º2 le matin, refers to the normal bodily temperature of a pregnant woman. Pregnancy has brought the anyway unstable Betty a lot of troubles. Her mental apparatus buckled and fled into ever smaller and less passable channels of consciousness after her pregnancy started to go wrong, and the sex act at the beginning implies many issues related not only to the film by Jean-Jacques Beineix, but to the actual phenomenon of (cinematic) madness. Did Betty and Zorg make their baby in the first frame of the film, or did it happen later? Has the intimation of a new life put a stamp on their old lives? Could they have resisted, could they have won? Did they get from their defeat more than victory had promised them? Let us turn all these issues into questions about madness. When and how does madness come into being? What is the crucial moment? What is to be done; and the most important of all: why really? Questions that stray along the triple border of film, medicine and philosophy will not get answers − not because philosophy and feature films are here to raise questions, but because even the most exact of the three, medicine, is not all that exact on the issue of the mental.02 And, after all, sometimes it seems that film knowledge is the only essential knowledge there is − in the context of writing about films especially.
Testing out madness presupposes that there is a clearly defined border between the normal and the abnormal, the healthy and the sick, but... as Tim says to his friend Janice in the Ken Loach film Family Life (1971): “that is normal, but is it sane?” Janice had no answer to her friend’s question, but, just like Betty, she lost her unborn child. The manner in which she lost it is completely opposite to how Betty did. Janice’s mother forced her to get an abortion, while Betty had a miscarriage, but to both of them these were pivotal moments. Still, each one’s madness occurred in a different way. True enough, both of them showed various elements of instability in different ways − Betty with respect to the surroundings, Janice to herself − but the screenplay and directing show that the two cases of madness arose for different reasons. The whole world was against Betty, condemning her. From the very first minute to the last she sought an anchor for her vast and always chaotic billowing sails, and eventually found one − but nothing could help her. Betty had Zorg, whom she needed just the way he was − full of potential, understanding and love. Zorg needed Betty, for someone really did have to get him out of the wooden shed on the beach, someone had to fill him with trust, had to burn off the past life rapidly and decisively like warts on the heel. Zorg and Betty were a perfect match, but not good enough for her to be able to survive. Betty had no chance from the start. On the other hand, Janice was conformist in her decision to respect the family rules of her demanding parents for whom form was more important than content; Janice is the new generation in the grip of the older generation, past its best but still determined. If Betty, with a perfect partner by her side, cannot reach salvation, what chance does Janice stand? The mentally and physically fragile girl doesn’t have enough strength for two or let alone fifteen rounds in the ring with her father, a war veteran who never missed a day’s work, or with the uncrowned champion of the British suburbia, her mother. Janice gave herself up to it, she never ran from the fight, but the punches she threw were just a ridiculous reason for her parents to maul her even more viciously. Director Loach and writer David Mercer insist here on the appearance/viewpoint that the spiral of hopelessness in Janice had existed from the beginning, and yet it was not necessary for her to become lost in it. They treat the onset of madness as conditioned, as the force of unhappy circumstances in which arm in arm, directly to the bottom, go the ignorant, stubborn, but also scared and concerned, parents and their anaemic, indecisive and weakly daughter. Janice was broken by structures, Betty by the lack of them. But madness can occur even within perfectly well ordered, smart, concerned and competent structures. This is Ingmar Bergman’s message in the film Through a Glass Darkly (1961). Karin, the heroine03, returns to the safety of her family after treatment in a psychiatric institution, but instead of taking the pulse of extra-institutional reality and preparing herself for social integration, Karin again becomes a prisoner of her sickness. Beside her are her father, husband and brother, the three of them like members of an all-star team for a perfect welcome; but in spite of their minor weaknesses, it would not seem that any of them is to blame for anything, or is responsible for the problems of their beloved Karin. Her madness is genetically determined, which we learn when it turns out that her mother had suffered from the same condition and finally capitulated in life when faced with the same obstacle. Karin’s madness is a given, it does not depend on society; it is like a slow-burning fuse that smoulders under the skin and slowly makes its way to the cortex.
Everything outside her is inessential, what counts is inside her. In cinematic conceptions of madness the surroundings are important but not necessarily decisive. It can be a factor to speed things up (The Tenant, Roman Polanski, 1976), or it can be a starting point (The Shining, Stanley Kubrick, 1980); but, still, the surroundings have to awaken something, something that exists apart from it.
It is time for a significant “but”. But what if this something is there lurking in all of us? What if we are not blessedly sensible but merely lucky? Are we so orthodoxly normal that there is absolutely no interest in making us mad? The film A Woman under the Influence (1974) by John Cassavetes poses this question more emphatically than anything else. Mabel04 is a neurotic housewife immersed in the circumstances that would make almost anyone go off the rails. Her husband Nick is at the very least nuts. What is it that makes Mabel insane and Nick just nuts? There is no answer, for it could well have been Nick that ended up with psychiatric treatment spiced with electrical shocks, and not her. Throughout the film, he does his best to exacerbate her mental imbalance. Shouting, brawling, completely illogical and inconsistent decisions, a house full of people when it’s peace and calm that are essential. And then, is Betty’s Zorg completely sane? Or Karin’s father David? No, they, too, don’t have to be considered healthy, but they are normal. Karin’s father is a much-read successful writer05 whose first response to seeing his daughter is not to help her but to record and describe her fall. Zorg is a man of a parallel reality, a doormat, a robber and a drunk. Janice’s mother is an actively and passively aggressive woman, a control freak par excellence. But it is actually the procedures of the normal, if not healthy, milieu that set off the sequence of events that brings an unhappy member of it to the edge of sanity. Mabel, Janice and Betty became victims of their own difference ignited by unsuitable surroundings; however, there are also examples of films in which an unsuitable environment is the beginning and end of someone’s madness. Two authors are particularly important − Stanley Kubrick06 and Werner Herzog07. The military, as the ultimate expression of obliteration of the personal and glorification of the general, had often presented memorable madmen in their films. A whole gallery of unhinged figures is to be found in Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, but how the army really affects the individual is particularly tellingly brought out in Full Metal Jacket (1987). Brainwashing coupled with pure aggression has right from the beginning made Private Pyle into a psychotic suicide, when, in fact, he was meant to become only a killer, just like his fellow solder Joker at the end of the film. But this kind of madness is desirable and necessary, at least in our times. Herzog’s films show how successful the military machine is in creating the crazy out of the unstable. There is no need to discuss at lengths the conquistador exploits of Aguirre; it is enough just to say: El Dorado08; but then, there is also the lesser known Woyzeck (1979), a film created after the never completed brilliant drama of the same name by Georg Büchner. It tells of a weakly, anguished soldier from the German provinces who is driven by the circumstances of life into the darkest corner of his mind. Private Woyzeck is, as it were, half way between Private Pyle and Private Joker. He took a wrong turning, did not become what he should have, unconsciously became a renegade, and disqualified himself. From life. Still, when the flight from normality occurs in socially unacceptable ill-health, it is sometimes thought that there must be some help somewhere. The institutions should do their jobs.
The environment can then set off, speed up, or even create a whole cycle of madness, and people inveterately tend to think that there are methods of cure. If we don’t believe the doctors, who can we believe? Some of the most fascinating films that deal with madness are in fact set in mental institutions. The lobotomised Nicholson in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Stanely Kubrick, 1975) is a picture not to be forgotten, just like the film Opium: Diary of a Mad Woman09 (János Szász, 2007). Although dismissed by many reviewers as an unfoundedly pretentious film attempt, in spite of its many faults10 Opium does represent, if nothing else, a good time-machine into the marvels of twentieth-century clinical psychiatric procedures.11 The range of treatments from innocent immersion into cold water all the way to the chisel between the eyes and the forehead in all these films in fact says nothing of treatment, but rather of a Pilate-like washing of hands, a capitulation before the unknown and insoluble. Calm them down, lock them up and throw away the key − makes everyday life a bit easier. A powerfully conceptual cinematic approach to the problems of clinical treatment of madness was taken up in 2005 by Jan Švankmajer. The film Lunacy (Sˆílení), by using actors, animation and experimental resources, tests out two principles of treatment: the strictly controlled and the laissez-faire approach. In the last minutes of the ∫lm the impression is fairly uninspiring, for it seems that whatever we do, whatever attitude we adopt, the mental patient is going to remain a mental patient. A little less than fifty years ago, however, not everyone thought that. Certainly not Frank Perry in his film David and Lisa (1962), an interesting love story about two young people whose madnesses seemed perfectly compatible. David is a youngster whose mind aspires to perfection, constantly in search of clean and sustainable patterns. In the chaos of Lisa’s thoughts and feelings, he finds a manner to establish communication. David gives her the acknowledgement that meaning does exist, he gives her someone who understands her, and Lisa helps him to understand that a chaotic life is not necessarily without meaning, that it need not be feared or shunned. But is there another side of the clinical coin? What about the healthy among the mad? The fact that you are actually inside suggests that you really deserve to be inside. McMurphy, prove you are healthy!12 Tell them, Cole.13 Film stories about regaining health are possible, and the last film of Martin Scorsese, Shutter Island (2010), reminds us of this, but then a new question arises: What do we really want − to live in the mad everyday world, or in our own private mad world? Scorsese’s hero replies to this dilemma by cutting the Gordian nervous threads; Cassavetes’ Nick brings Mabel back to their little paradise by slapping her. Zorg made the decision for Betty; mother and father for Janice. Pyle solved the problem himself; Karin was taken care of by the well-oiled society; and the unluckily calculated Randle Patrick McMurphy by his friend, the Indian chief Bromden.14
Films, however, don’t exist only to provide their own interpretations of madness − some actually attempt to simulate it, like a good part of the oeuvre of David Lynch. His films hold out against narrative logic, like power trips of some human beast locked up like a gimp15 in a cage, they work out how to settle the situation, how to find a way out; some sort of answer, if nothing else... But not all films that, in one way or another, come into contact with mental disorders are necessarily fraught with the basic questions of meaning. There are also feature films that ask the spectators primarily to examine their own views, their perception of mental disorders in their own surroundings. The Spanish film Yo tambien (Me Too, Antonio Naharro and Álvarao Pastor, 2009) shows that there is place in society for those who have Down’s syndrome, for example16. Actor Pablo Pineda plays a character who is fairly close to him − for Pineda is the first university graduate with Down’s syndrome in Europe. Work, love, social integration − all this is possible outside the closed communities of the sick, in communication with the healthy. It is necessary just to expand the horizons, to provide a chance. It is necessary to recall that not only is something that is normal not necessarily healthy, but also that what is normal does not have to be very common. Films can help us in this; they are constantly forcing us to test out everything that surrounds us. Including madness. Not in order to develop new fears, but to overcome the atavism within us. What cramps us and at the same time attracts us, like a deer to the racing headlights; like Zorg to Betty.
— Translated from Croatian by Graham McMaster
01 A pornographic film assumes a sex act with an extremely appropriate and talented acting crew in front of the camera; it counts on more or less impressive primary sexual features in its actors and on their unquestioned technical sexual skills.
02 We might recall the film Control about Ian Curtis of Joy Division. He is diagnosed with epilepsy and given medicines with the instruction to find himself the best combination, to go to bed, avoid sudden changes of light and to stay away from drink. Instructions as if his disease was a particularly resistant case of scurf.
03 In all these films, how many sick women, how many men? Film statistics experts, a question for you.
04 See note 3.
05 How well mental disorders go together with art: Betty Blue, As Good as it Gets, Through a Glass Darkly, Opium: Diary of a Mad Woman, Pollock, Hours, Shine...
06 More than half of the feature films of Kubrick’s work deal with madness of one sort or another: of the individual, computers, society...
07 Wernog Herzog’s best film about a man who was the wrong side of normal was in fact shot in the documentary genre: Grizzly Man (2005). And how well he is acquainted with the material tells us he fact that he calls every grey hair on his head Kinski.
08 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948) is another wonderful example of what gold can lead to.
09 See note 3.
10 Above all: an ambitious concept of connecting real people and events in an imaginary screenplay relationship sometimes leaves he impression of being excessively artificial.
11 Psychiatry and governmental machinery of repression sometimes go hand in hand − The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein.
12 One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Stanely Kubrick, 1975)
13 Twelve Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995)
14 Anyone considering being institutionalised should watch Pillow of Death, a classic horror by Wallace Fox of 1945.
15 Zed knows, but Zed is dead.
16 Actors with Down’s are not a rarity, but two films show that quite opposite effects can be achieved with the same concept. Crispin Hellion Glover shot his What Is It? (2005) and still has not settled questions of why he exploited his actors; on the other hand, Gust Van Den Berghe with his Little Baby Jesus of Flandr (En waar de sterre bleef still staan, 2010) got only praise for he gave his Down’s syndrome actors untypical roles. Which is not to say that persons with Down’s did not do the acting.
Hrvoje Pukšec (Zagreb, 1976) is a film critic and journalist, currently working for Croatian Television as a journalist and editor of a film broadcast Posebni dodaci [Special features]. He has written numerous texts and authored many TV and radio contributions for Vijenac, Zarez, Croatian Radio-Television, Film.hr, Filmski.net and many other printed and electronic media. He was member of the FIPRESCI jury at Motovun and Cottbus, as well as of the juries of festivals in Croatia: 25 FPS and Dani hrvatskog filma [Days of Croatian Cinema]. During the last few years, before the (always!) earned holidays, he works in the PR team of the Pula Film Festival. He's a proud butler of the kitty Milica, a multiple gaming recidivist, and a never truly realized football right winger.