Inside and Out: Mental Health in Cinema

Mental health is a delicate subject, film-makers with the ambition of exploring the mind and these issues must constantly question themselves. Are they allowing the audience to empathise with the characters? Are they presenting these difficult and complex concepts accurately? Are they making a good film besides all this? This becomes a juggling act for any writer or director, but film of all art-forms surely has the greatest potential in this area?

Mental Health is a difficult subject because it is intrinsically so dark and so unspoken of for just this reason. It is said to be the largest epidemic in the world, whose cure is neither in reach scientifically nor philosophically at this time. We dare not misrepresent these issues, but we also don’t want to gloss over them either. It is usually left to the auteur directors looking to make a statement and leave their mark, but with Pixar’s release of Inside Out, a story of a girl and her emotions battling for control of her mind, can the idea of mental health be brought accessibly to family audiences? With many calling the film a ‘return to form’ for Pixar after a string of disappointing releases, I pledge my bets on success. Although the film is much more about the emotional development of the mind, about how sadness and fear need not be thought of negatively because all emotions ultimately take care of you, rather than depression per say. I would argue that this still brings the topics of mental health to audiences by presenting these strange, uncontrollable emotions in a visually literal way – something that an auteur film may even get ridiculed for.

Often quoted as being the most accurate representation of depression in cinema, Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia is a controversial film because it is simply so rigid in form that it is often called pretentious or simply unpleasant to watch. The audience is asked to empathise with Kirsten Dunst’s character and in doing so feel the weight of existence, the timelessness of life, the apathy and numbing of depression. Her character’s inability to enjoy her own wedding day, the irrational decisions she makes, only to then act calmly in the face of certain death because she has already contemplated the existential questions surrounding death – we are challenged by the film’s representation of depression because we are asked to feel depressed.  And perhaps this is the crux of the issue here; if we want to explore mental health problems then we are only by extension asking the audience to experience it, even to the smallest degree.

More commercially successful “mainstream” films which depict mental health problems are usually softer and present the issue without demanding the audience’s empathy, only its sympathy. A Beautiful Mind for example, Best Picture winner at the Oscars, presents a man with Schizophrenia. It is shown in a very literal way, instead of being visceral, it only asks us to feel sorry for the main character, rather than feel the same as the main character. This doesn’t necessarily make it a worse film, perhaps less artful for many cinephiles and perhaps a worse representation of this issue, but I’m sure my mum would rather watch A Beautiful Mind to Melancholia.

So does this suggest a divide in how to approach mental health in cinema, to comfort or challenge? And if so, where does Pixar’s Inside Out fit into all this?

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