Psychiatry Films from AMHF: “Girl, Interrupted” (1999)

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Themes relevant to the work of AMHF: Borderline Personality Disorder, Sociopathic Behavior, and Suicide all thro the lens of feminist theory

This is film number twenty of twenty-one in the AMHF series, focusing on a range of Hollywood depictions of psychiatry, analysts, and individuals under analysis, from the silent era to the present. (The final film for discussion, an updated version of The Bell Jar, will be included as a kind of “what may be” assuming its delayed release extends past summer 2013.)

Starring Winona Ryder, Girl, Interrupted is an adaptation of Susanna Kaysen’s 1993 memoir. The superior cast includes Vanessa Redgrave, Whoopi Goldberg, and Angelina Jolie, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

The movie takes a keen, if “Hollywoodized,” look at borderline-personality disorder, suicide, and sociopathic behavior within late-1960s institutional life.

The plot, which follows, is condensed from Wikipedia.

Set in the late 1960s, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder) finds herself in Claymoore Hospital following an OD. She denies the accusation, in the process acknowledging that she does not want to go to college but would like to be a writer.

She befriends some fellow patients and forms a small troupe of troubled women in her ward. Susanna is particularly enchanted by Lisa Rowe (Angelina Jolie), a diagnosed sociopath. When Lisa returns to the ward after running away, she notices that her old best friend’s place has been taken by Susanna. She demands to know what happened to her best friend, eventually realizing that she had committed suicide. Lisa encourages Susanna to stop taking her medications and/or trade them with others, and generally resist the influences of therapy.

During a visit outside the ward at a nearby ice-cream shop, Susanna is confronted by her mother’s friend, the angry wife of Susanna’s old English teacher, with whom she had an affair, and her daughter. The woman harshly berates Susanna, but Lisa intervenes with an oral assault, horrifying the older woman. As a result, Lisa loses her outside privileges.

Susanna’s former boyfriend, Toby Jacobs (Jared Leto), comes to visit. He says that he is about to serve in Vietnam and invites her to run to Canada with him. He tries to persuade her that she is not crazy and that the girls in the asylum are not really her friends. But Susanna refuses to go.

It is shown that friend Polly observes the couple as they speak outside. That night, she awakens screaming. The nurses remove her and place her into solitary confinement to calm her down, but she continues sobbing, horrified by the burn scars all over her body and face. To cheer her up, Susanna steals a guitar from the music room and sits outside Polly’s room with Lisa. When a male orderly notices them, Susanna seduces him to keep him from reporting the incident. Afterward, the two girls fall asleep outside Polly’s room. In the morning, Valerie Owens, RN (Whoopi Goldberg), is so sick of their antics that she refers them to the therapists.

The next morning, Susanna is called into the therapist’s office, where she is analyzed once more. Susanna meets Dr. Sonia Wick (Vanessa Redgrave), and attempts to shut her out with a nasty attitude. In response, Wick decides to take Susanna as her patient. She is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Lisa is also taken to see the doctor but does not return, and Susanna falls into a depression.

Lisa returns, and she and Susanna escape from Claymoore. After hitching a ride, they spend the night at the house of the recently released Daisy, whom Lisa antagonizes in her usual fashion. Daisy hangs herself the next morning. Unfazed by the suicide, Lisa searches Daisy’s pocket, takes whatever cash she can find, and nonchalantly leaves the house. A mortified Susanna stays behind to phone an ambulance and subsequently return to the hospital. Susanna also adopts Daisy’s cat. In the next few weeks, she begins to cooperate with her doctors and responds to her therapy, expressing her feelings thro writing and painting. She is soon scheduled to be released.

At that point, Lisa is caught and returned by the police. Upon learning about Susanna’s pending release, Lisa targets Susanna for ridicule and emotional abuse. On her last night at Claymoore, Susanna awakens to discover Lisa in the maze of corridors beneath the ward, reading Susanna’s diary to Polly. The other girls turn on Susanna, with Lisa particularly vicious. In the ensuing dispute Lisa threatens to stab herself with a large hypodermic needle. Susanna confronts Lisa, telling her that she is “already dead”. Defeated, Lisa suffers a mental breakdown; but Susanna ignores her.

Susanna is released the next day. Before she leaves, she visits Lisa and tells her that she will get out and that she must come and see her. As Susanna leaves, she says good-bye to all her friends. At the end of the film, Susanna states that by the next decade most of her friends were released.

The AMHF series includes a number of plots set in or intimately connected to mental institutions: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Bedlam, Spellbound, The Snake Pit, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Don Juan DeMarco.

None quite depicts institutionalization as the present film does, thro the lens of feminist theory.

The film also explores issues around the act of institutionalization versus its need. In a way, among the above-named movies, Girl, Interrupted is closest in spirit to One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, though that earlier film is satiric and not based on fact.

Here is the powerful trailer.

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