The bobby-cars are having a bad day. One by one, they are hurled at the shatterproof glass door, which separates the grey and sparse courtyard of the youth detention centre from the inside of the building. Even though the door withstands, it isn’t over yet. With a loud groan, nine-year-old Benni runs to crash one of the toy vehicles into the door. A little CGI crack shows in the glass, just as the neon-pink title-card foreshadows that this is so much more than just about a broken door.
Some films make you emotional, some render you contemplative, while others fill you up with a creeping sensation of hope or despair. But only few manage to completely sweep you off your feet by offering a nuanced, empathetic portrayal of trauma and mental illness. In this respect, the recent German arthouse film System Crasher arrives like a furious marathon runner with a megaphone. A more apt description of is “wucht”, the German synonym to “stunner.”
Last year, I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD as many of us know it. While the label was slapped on me at 25, I think I’ve been dealing with it in at least some form for most of my life. Simply put, it is a disorder where people have obsessions and compulsions. It can be quite nebulous in its manifestations, but when it comes to onscreen depictions, OCD is seen as a fear of contamination and a need for cleanliness. Characters such as Tony Sheloub’s Monk from Monk or Jack Nicholson’s Melvin from As Good As It Gets are prime examples of stereotypical representations of OCD; they must wash their hands constantly, they obsessively count, they can’t step on cracks in the sidewalk, they are afraid of everything. These rituals and fears then make them weird and their OCD makes them unrelatable. But that’s not how OCD manifests for everyone; for some people, contamination fears are a large part of their compulsion. That’s not the case for me. If I never have to hear someone say to me, “but you’re messy, you can’t be OCD,” I’d be so elated. My OCD is much more internal, meaning I don’t have many visual compulsions. My mind is constantly flooded with obsessive thoughts about harm coming to myself and others, which means I’m always trying to find ways to avoid that harm. This can manifest through planned walking routes, constantly checking the oven, counting my steps, biting my nails, the list goes on and often changes depending on my stress levels.
A large part of figuring out how to cope with my OCD has involved recognizing the deeper meaning of my personal relationship to the horror genre. Horror has always been a part of my life. I have devoured horror films and books since an inappropriate age, finding a strange solace in the violence. Slumber parties always involved horror movies. I owned almost all of R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike’s books. I watched horror trailers obsessively. I dove into the world of pirated movies so I could watch the latest horror indies. It’s always just been part of who I am, so when I was diagnosed with OCD, I didn’t think at all about how this could link to my love of horror.
This piece is part of a series called Jewels Under the Kitchen Sink. Here we try to bring films, that have been overlooked during their time or were (despite their distinctive and timely nature) somehow forgotten, back onto the radar. It’s an attempt at reaching into the dusty niches of time and fishing some true gems out of there. We hope to peak your interest towards some of these films, so they can be reintroduced into today’s film discussion.
I stumbled over Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Céline per accident on Youtube, soon realizing that its presence online borders on non-existence. The rather small amount of voices that I could find, seemed to show an unusually big admiration for the utterly forgotten 1992 Berlin Film Festival competition entry. Descriptions of the film struck a chord with me and how I felt at the moment, and I took a chance on it.
Cèline (1992) – directed by Jean-Claude Brisseau. All Right Reserved.
There is a rather simple base narrative at play here: A nurse named Geneviéve offers Céline – a young, distraught woman – a drive home. When they arrive there, Céline tries to take the first chance to kill herself. Geneviéve prevents her suicide and starts to take care of Céline. They start a healing process – together, as Geneviéve struggles herself.
Mental health and how it is portrayed on film has always been an especially touchy subject for me. It has always been difficult for me to try to talk about the way people handle it on film because of my own autism and the fact there’s no “definite” portrait about how people on the spectrum truly behave. There isn’t a definite portrait because such portrait is absolutely impossible, but that is just besides the point. The point is, when you look oftentimes at how films portray mental health on film, it always seems to be within a negative connotation.
I’ve written for a friend of mine about how characters who can be read as having autism speak more for our own experiences than characters explicitly on the spectrum. On my own blog I’ve also written a piece about the perception of autism on film, and the negative and positive impact that it has left within my life. But I’m not here to talk specifically about how autism is portrayed on film, rather instead about the challenge of getting down to the bone of the experience of someone who evidently has mental health problems without feeling like a stereotyped portrait of such.
The most obvious example that comes to mind regarding a depiction of mental health that recognizes such people in a positive outlook is a rather well-known film, it’s Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This has been one of my own favourite films for a long while, for even if Jack Nicholson’s Randle McMurphy isn’t a crazy person (the premise of the film is based around his experiences in a mental health institution after he pretends to be insane, to have a relaxed background) he only wanted to seek the best for his comrades in the institution. But all of these people know that they are within limits because of an authority figure who intimidates them at all costs. It seems easy enough for me, because of the fact that in Randle McMurphy, what has come forth isn’t merely just a story about “overcoming” what’s wrong with you. It doesn’t boil everything down to a conclusion so dumbfounded and too simple, but McMurphy sees these people as capable of more than what they’d been led to believe. Because he sees them as human beings, and treats them as such even to the cost of a greater pain.