by Rose Finlay
Whether it be Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) and Marnie (1964) or this year's Oscar winning Silver Linings Playbook (2012) the trope of mental illness has always been a favorite of filmmakers. This is because mental illness is a great literary excuse for why good people do crazy things. To the general public, schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder (disassociate identity disorder), and amnesia are generally not very well understood, but are commonly referenced which makes them somewhat mysterious and interesting. However, problems alight when filmmakers use these illnesses and disorders as plot devices while reinforcing incorrect stereotypes. Two films presented at the Berlinale were good examples of how representations of mental illness in films can reinforce negative stereotypes. These films were Side Effects (2013) and The Best Offer (2013).
In both films, there is a character, who for the majority of the movie, is thought to have some sort of mental disorder. In Side Effects, Rooney Mara's character Emily Taylor is thought to have depression which turns into husband-killing insanity after she is given a new medication. The Best Offer is about an agoraphobic young woman named Claire (Sylvia Hoeks) who has not been able to leave her house, nor allow herself to be seen, since she was twelve. Both films involve a male character trying to help the disturbed woman overcome her issues, and in both cases the men are backstabbed as it is revealed that these women are, in fact, lying about their mental illnesses. While it was clear that The Best Offer was a simple thriller, Side Effects had much potential to raise interesting points about the effect that the culture of pharmaceuticals has on the field of mental health and on the individuals. However, in the end it became little better than The Best Offer by falling into the Hollywood trap of using mental illness as a trite plot device.
The use of faked mental illness as a major plot point is the largest problem (but there are many more) with Side Effects and The Best Offer. Using this plot device is a slippery slope, because we must remember the majority of the general public has a limited understanding of the workings of mental health and when films reinforce the idea that mental illness can be faked, it helps to cement the idea that people are "faking" their depression, anxiety or any number of other issues that fall under the field of mental health. Just like filmmakers must be held responsible to raise new representations of issues such as racism and feminism in their films, they must also change the way mental health is utilized in the future.