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Descent into Madness

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La moustache
Mt. Head
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
In Absentia
Asylum
Hidden Love
A Town Called Panic
The Blue Angel
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Losing your mind. Losing control. Losing your grip on reality. Whatever you call it, there's nothing like a good mental breakdown to ratchet up dramatic tension, a fact of which filmmakers are acutely aware. Directors have long been fascinated with the inner workings, and failings, of the human psyche. For what is a film if not a medium to explore the human condition?

For the most part, audiences have been willing to go along for the ride, journeying to some pretty dark and disturbing places. Observing a mental tailspin on screen can be a terrifying, emotional or humorous experience (or all three), depending on the context and the viewer. Keep that in mind as you explore these eight films, each with a unique spin on the theme “descent into madness.”

La moustache

(2006) directed by Emmanuel Carrere, 85 minutes

Have you ever questioned your own sanity? If you have, then you might sympathize with the protagonist of La moustache, at least a little bit. When middle-aged Marc Thiriez shaves off his moustache, which up until then had been a long-standing and conspicuous fixture of his appearance, he logically expects others to take notice. But when no one, not even his wife, comments on his new look, he begins to wonder whether or not he ever had a moustache in the first place. What could conceivably be the premise of a hilarious Will Farrell comedy in an alternate universe, this taut, psychological mystery will keep you guessing until the very end.

Mt. Head

(2002) directed by Koji Yamamura, 10 minutes

For generations, gullible children have been warned not to swallow watermelon seeds lest they want the bulbous fruit to take root inside their tiny stomachs. A waste-averse old man suffers a similar fate when he foolishly eats a cherry pit and a tree stubbornly sprouts from the top of his head. Garnering unwanted attention from this strange growth, the man is soon subject to all kinds of indignities before succumbing to the ultimate existential crisis.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

(1920) directed by John Robertson, 78 minutes

Never before had the descent into insanity been presented as insidiously as it was in 1920’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a transformation rendered all the more disquieting thanks to John Barrymore’s arresting performance. “In each of us, two natures are at war – the good and the evil,” the good Dr. Jekyll says, and it his attempt to separate the two that brings forth the evil Mr. Hyde. What begins as a scientific exploration into the nature of human consciousness soon devolves into an irrevocable split of the mind as Mr. Hyde begins to assert himself more and more forcefully. The moral of this story is clear: toying with the mind is a perilous endeavor. Beware.

In Absentia

(2000) directed by Stephen Quay, 20 minutes

Dedicated “to E.H., who lived and wrote to her husband from an asylum,” the Quay brothers’ shadowy short film In Absentia forgoes traditional narrative, combining haunting sounds, obtuse imagery and sinister animation to evoke the temperament of the tortured mind. Alone in her room, a woman repeatedly writes letters using broken pieces of pencil lead, her fingers grimy and cracked from this eternal obsession. A powerful, penetrating film, In Absentia stands as testament to the ways in which the mind can become an inescapable prison of our own making.

Asylum

(1972) directed by Peter Robinson, 95 minutes

While some filmmakers depict cases of mental illness to shock or entertain, others use their craft to shed a light on this debilitating social issue. Rather than exploit their subjects, such films aim to inform and confront social stigmas, giving voice to a marginalized and often neglected constituency. In this vein, Peter Robinson’s 1971 cinéma-vérité documentary Asylum documents alternative methods of treating severe cases of schizophrenia. Along with a small crew, Robinson integrates himself in a London row-house where a community of mentally ill patients live together under the care of Doctor R. D. Laing, a “radical” psychiatrist. Although his methods are controversial, it is health professionals like Laing and filmmakers like Robinson who help bring greater attention to caring for the mentally ill.

Hidden Love

(2010) directed by Alessandro Capone, 95 minutes

Hidden Love takes you deep inside the tortured mind of a suicidal woman (a haunting performance from Isabelle Huppert) who is seemingly indifferent to the existence of her only child (played by the beautiful Melanie Laurent). Confined to a mental hospital, Danielle reflects on her failings as a mother and struggles to sort out her true feelings about her husband and daughter with the help of a compassionate psychiatrist (Greta Scacchi). The treatment process is difficult and painful, laden with agonizing flashbacks, hallucinations and psychotic episodes.

A Town Called Panic

(2009) directed by Stéphane Aubier, 77 minutes

The carefree lives of three spastic bachelors (the endearing Cowboy, Indian and Horse) devolve into all-out mayhem when a simple birthday misunderstanding results in the delivery of fifty million bricks into their possession. Dealing with the fall-out from their brick blunder will test the very limits of their mental fortitude and lead to a surreal, mind-bending journey. A series of increasingly crazy events causes the scatterbrained trio to literally descend into madness as they travel to the center of the earth and beyond. Will things ever return to normal for our wacky, error-proned heroes?

The Blue Angel

(1930) directed by Josef von Sternberg, 107 minutes

A toxic combination of lust, jealousy and obsession sets in motion the downfall of a buttoned-up professor (Emil Jannings) in this Weimar Germany era tragedy. An instructor at a local boy’s school, Immanuel Rath is as conservative as they come, but even he isn’t immune to the seductive wiles of cabaret singer Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich). Abandoning his respectable life to be with his beloved temptress, Rath is forced to suffer the indignity of performing as a lowly cabaret clown, all the while enduring Lola’s taunting and philandering. It all becomes too much to bear and Rath hits rock bottom, suffering an explosive mental meltdown that you won’t soon forget.