It is too often that the effects of mental illness, and the experiences of those suffering from it, go unnoticed by the people closest to them. Yet the subject itself has been a staple in cinema for much of the past century, either as a major theme or as a background element. This is not surprising- ‘mental illness’ is a nebulous term which can encompass anything from autism to schizophrenia, and as such creates abundant opportunity for the creation of films that deal with a specific subject somewhere on this spectrum.
Due to its prevalence in society, the subject of mental illness in film has always been a double-edged sword. In one instance, a faithful portrayal can enable the audience to engage with it and better understand it as a serious issue; Julianne Moore’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Alice, a linguistics professor suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice is an example. Such sensitivity and compassion in depicting the character’s struggle against dementia has been lauded by critics and by those affected alike, and makes up part of a sub-genre of films that has emerged over the years which deal with mental illness as the central theme. In such movies, the human story takes centre stage, attempting to capture an image of the tragedy and heartbreak of ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Two Days, One Night, starring Marion Cotillard is another exemplar, dealing not only with the process of surviving a nervous breakdown, but also public perceptions of and reactions to mental illness. Narratives such as these contain clear social commentaries, which enable audiences to distinguish between films where mental illness is a major theme and those where it acts as a background element.
With any real world issue depicted in film, there is a danger of misrepresentation. Most notably a portrayal of one type of illness may form the basis for the stereotyping of many others. This is none more evident than in Dustin Hoffman’s depiction of an autistic savant in Rain Man. While critically acclaimed for its performances, the film received heavy scrutiny from audiences, and has widely been regarded as the agent in inaugurating a common and incorrect media stereotype that people on the autism spectrum typically have savant skills. Conversely, references to Rain Man, in particular Dustin Hoffman’s performance, have become popular shorthand for autism and savantism which, while oversimplifying the autistic spectrum, demonstrates the film’s success in dispelling other misconceptions about autism and improving autistic awareness.
Yet far more widespread are the films which have been coloured by mental issues but do not address them directly, or at best only address them in passing. It is demonstrably true that most cinema falls under this category; the old adage, “write what you know”, is remarkably appropriate, particularly as the issue of mental health has always existed, if not mentioned explicitly in public discourse. Cinema is the outlet for unspoken sentiment, and the strength of mental issues as an undercurrent is comparable between films as diametrically opposed as The Deerhunter, Terminator 2, The Big Lebowski and Finding Nemo, all of which deal with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as key aspects of character and story. Similarly, Dr Strangelove, Dead Poets Society, The Royal Tenenbaums and Inception all include suicide as a motif, despite being completely disparate in all other regards.
This would suggest that mental illness permeates modern cinema at its core, partly because it is confusing and interesting, but primarily because it is a fundamentally human phenomenon tied directly to how we perceive ourselves as a society. The depiction of mental issues in film, regardless of whether the portrayal is beneficial or detrimental, stems from a desire to make sense of our humanity. Where early films sought to define what is considered ‘normal’, in recent years we have seen a blossoming of attempts to educate audiences about the realities of living under the shadow of illnesses like depression, or show its prevalence in wider society. Sensitivity and compassion can be achieved either through authenticity, or by its inclusion as part of the thematic background. Such is the nature of mental illness in cinema; it appears everywhere in fiction because it surrounds us in reality.