From lecture halls to cinema screens: learning about the psyche through films

Last year, the round-up of medical humanities-related films at the London Film Festival (LFF) centred on the theme of old age. This year, to synchronise with Mental Health Day (which fell on 10th October 2013, the second of the twelve days of the LFF), the mind and its mishaps serve as our cluster-point.

“Le Paz”, directed by Argentinian Santiago Loza, follows Liso, a young man recently discharged from a psychiatric hospital back to his family’s house. While he was safe in hospital, he is now confused by facing his family and friends, and they are clueless as to how to deal with him as a patient or as his old lively self. The difficulty of building a new life after a mental break-down is closely observed, without any judgments passed on the patient or his circle of family and friends.

The French film “Camille Claudel 1915” (director: Bruno Dumont) tells the story of the eponymous French sculptor (played superbly by Juliette Binoche) after her illicit love affair with fellow sculptor Rodin comes to an abrupt end. She is admitted to a mental asylum where she lives for 35 years. Detailing the harrowing aspects of daily life in a secure mental institution, the film takes the bold step of employing real life patients to act in the film.

In the first half of the film, we see a soul-tortured by the oppressive regime of the asylum, but we also see the companionship that develops between Camille Claudel and her fellow inmates. The film’s narrative changes in the second half as the story is told from the viewpoint of Camille Claudel’s brother who insists on keeping her in the asylum till she is completely cured of her paranoid delusions. The audience is left to decide whether it is humane to quarantine people with mental illness indefinitely, how can they be assessed to be fit for discharge, who makes that decision, and the role families can play in supporting or obstructing patients’ return to normal life.

“The Double”, a UK film directed by Richard Ayoade, is an imaginative retelling of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella of the same name. Here we see Simon, a young company officer leading an isolated existence – or non-existence – in an oppressive government organisation that is only livened up by his secret longings for his work colleague Hannah. His boring but peaceful life is turned upside down when a character with his name and exact features assumes his identity and position in his workplace and personal life.

The film can certainly be viewed as a dramatised narrative of schizophrenia depicting its negative symptoms of anhedonia, lack of social engagement and its positive symptoms of visual and auditory hallucinations.

The role of family dynamics and the beneficial role of group psychotherapy are the main focus of “Starred Up”, (UK, David Mackenzie). Eric is a teenage offender with a violent personality locked up in an adults prison where his own father is an inmate. His saving grace comes in the shape of a volunteer psychotherapist who runs a weekly support group for prisoners to explore their troubles and through peer support to try and find a positive way out of their current situation.

“Labor Day” (USA, Jason Reitman) stars Kate Winslet as a woman with agoraphobia going through a difficult time with her son following the collapse of her marriage, and how a strange man entering their lives has a transforming influence into helping them both cope with depression and social isolation.

Many celebrities such as Michael Douglas, David Duchovny and Tommy Lee Jones have publicly admitted to suffering from sex addiction as a mental disease. “Don Jon” (USA, Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a refreshing entry in the Festival, tackling this serious subject in a light-hearted manner. Here we follow Don Jon, an online porn sites addict, and how his life changes after he meets an attractive woman Barbara. She teaches him how to re-connect with human beings and emotions, and how to confront his own demons.

My personal favourite of the LFF’s films portraying mental illness is “The Lunchbox”, directed by (India / Germany / France / USA, Ritesh Batra) which tells the story of Sajaan, an old man about to retire. Following the death of his wife, he becomes socially isolated and depressed. Through a fateful coincidence one day, he receives the wrong packed lunch that was meant to go to another man in Mumbai city centre. The wife of that man Ila is a young woman struggling with depression, stuck in a loveless marriage, grieving her brother’s recent suicide, and to make matters worse her father is dying of lung cancer. Sajaan enjoys her packed lunch, so he starts writing her notes sent back in the lunchbox, and through the letters between them, we follow a beautiful love story which ultimately transforms their lives and shows them a way out of their respective depression states.

“It is sometimes necessary to take the wrong train to reach the right destination” – a line from “The Lunchbox”, which serves as a reminder of the cinema’s ability to teach. For the saying could apply to all the above films portraying mental illness, in that visiting the cinema (perhaps the wrong train, or way of doing things, in terms of formal training) can help doctors reach the right destination: learning a lot about the human psyche in health and disease.

Address for correspondence: Dr Khalid Ali, senior lecturer in Geriatrics, Brighton

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