Kirsten Dunst played a deeply depressed yet comforting Justine in Melancholia.
When the Rendezvous With Madness Film Festival, starting tomorrow (Thursday, November 9), screened its first flicks 20 years ago, the aim was to show Toronto audiences more complex, exploratory and accurate representations of mental illness than those they were seeing in popular culture.
The backdrop was a Hollywood film industry rife with stereotypes, many of them gendered. But while stigmatization endures, much has changed since the fest's inception, both in reality and on the silver screen.
Traditionally, the industry's depiction, says festival co-founder Lisa Brown, has been highly inaccurate. "Madness has always been part of cinema, but it's been stereotyped to such a degree that, unfortunately, people have believed it."
But she recognizes we're in the throes of an attitudinal shift. As real-life perspectives on mental illness are opening up, so are they in popular culture, with, interestingly, young female representations leading the charge.
Last year's Melancholia turned depression completely on its head, creating a comforting heroine out of the deeply depressed Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst.
But the most mainstream entry has to be Showtime's Emmy-winning Homeland, now in its second season. CIA Agent Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, hides her bipolar disorder from her boss because she'd be fired if he found out. But her character's complex personality, her gut instincts, determination and, yes, some obsessiveness and a few manic episodes are all part of what enables her to save the day.
For both characters, their mental illness is both hindrance and gift, disrupting their ability to function but also offering them valuable insights and bursts of creativity.
Brown approves of this message: "I hadn't liked Kirsten Dunst until I saw that film,'' she says. "People with serious depression could really relate to her inability to function.
"I've met thousands of people with mental illness, and I would say many of them have far better coping skills than those who don't have a diagnosed illness. You can learn a lot from somebody with a mental illness."
The current crop of more positive depictions is a far cry from the standard fare. Typically, asylums in the movies confine unpredictable, dangerous and often violent inmates who, if they escape, may become homicidal maniacs, like Sling Blade's Karl Childers.
But much of that labelling is to the detriment of women. Award-winning films with male leads such as Rain Man and A Beautiful Mind attach a certain genius to disorders as varied as autism and schizophrenia.
Girl, Interrupted, the female version of the asylum film, highlights both of the major stereotypes: Angelina Jolie's sociopathic character is the cruel, venomous, evil antagonist to Winona Ryder's lost and feeble woman with borderline personality disorder.
In fact, the sexism of these stereotypes and the prominence of female characters with borderline personality (Betty Blue, Fatal Attraction, Borderline) may say more about gender representations than they do about mental health.
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's book The Madwoman In The Attic, published in 1979 and well known to English lit majors, argues that all women characters in Victorian literature are restricted to being either domesticated, pious angels or so crazy and potentially dangerous that they should be locked up. If the Victorian madwoman was once confined to the attic, she's now coming downstairs, kicking some ass and saving the day.
In the real world, signs of that shift are everywhere. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health's Defeat Denial campaign, for example, challenges the misconceptions that people with disorders are attention-seeking or responsible for acquiring them.
And some celebrities now openly discuss mental health: the NBA's Ron Artest famously thanked his psychiatrist after his team won the championship in 2010, and singer-songwriter Fiona Apple recently revealed her own challenges managing obsessive-compulsive disorder. In Every Single Night, her latest single, she repeats, in a fierce war cry, "Every single night's a fight with my brain."
Still, the old prejudices stick around. Says Brown, "[Mental health discussions] are more acceptable now than they were, with people ‘coming out,' but there's also misunderstanding, and some don't want to admit they have a mental illness because of discrimination."
All of which means there's still lots to talk about. "If mental illness becomes normal," says Brown, "I don't know how much of our festival will need to exist. On the other hand, if [madness] became part of everyone's daily discourse, maybe we'd find more films about mental wellness."