Female breakdowns, fainting and hysteria. Sounds quaint when you put it that way, like something you’d read about in a nineteenth century novel. But Persona and many other films revisit the pressurized madness more broadly associated with women than men, and they explore it with more nuance and diversity than my beloved Romantic novels ever did.
Robert Altman’s 3 Women, an attempt to capture a poignant dream the director had, shares elements with Persona. In it, Sissy Spacek’s character Pinky develops an unhealthy obsession with Shelly Duvall’s Minnie. The latter is a self-asserted boy magnet, even though the men with whom she flirts respond to her with ridicule. The film layers scenes of delusion, obsession, rejection, and violence to form a chaotic experience that cannot be understood easily. Why Minnie clings so eagerly to the men who reject her and how those same men come to admire Pinky’s version of Minnie’s traits and identity so readily is unclear. One wonders if the whole thing is a bad dream that Minnie has upon meeting the spooky Pinky, whose watery blue-eyed admiration for Minnie is by nature creepy. Pinky stares for too long at Minnie, reads her diary, and wonders aloud what it’s like to be twins. In Minnie, Pinky searches for a strong identity that she’s never before had. Even Pinky’s parents barely seem to know their daughter. They have nothing to say to her when they come to visit her in the hospital. No one’s ever noticed Pinky, and Minnie’s got more personality than she get fit in her tiny frame.
Meshes of the Afternoon, directed by Maya Deren, explores a woman’s unraveling of a different sort. The experimental short opens with Deren, who also stars in the film, witnessing her housekey’s percussive tumble down a flight of stairs. Deren picks it up and walks us thorugh her home, the camera alternating between first person shots and close-ups of Deren’s body parts. We examine her eyes, her feet, her abdomen. The layering of house tour and panning over Deren’s body suggests that in some way, Deren herself is a piece within the home, something to be admired for physical traits. A steamship hums in the background while the screen transforms into a door-window-as-porthole view of a black-shrouded figure on the walkway leading to Deren’s home. The figure has no face, we see as it turns toward the camera, and it walks away before a running Deren can catch up to it. It floats away, never identified nor caught, and Deren’s failure to catch it dooms her to loop through the same routine. A kitchen knife follows her. She can see her warped reflection in its blade, and the force of that revelation sends her reeling. Deren can’t escape her own shadows, and knows that her demons will wrap ever tighter around her. The dark figure returns and enters her home, but Deren still hasn’t regained her bearings. She stumbles up the stairwell and can hardly reach the second story of her home. She watches the still faceless figure place a flower on her bed. It turns in her direction and seems to “stare” her down before disappearing.
Real life examples of the tension wrought by sexuality abound. In America, we know the classic story of a pop star, someone like Britney Spears, crashing under the pressure to be perpetually pretty and ogled over. Her trajectory did not have an end so tragic as that of South Korean performer U-Nee, the talented pop star and dancer who hung herself in 2007. Forced by her record label to become sexier, to alter her body, in spite of her talents, U-Nee’s depression grew deeper. I don’t know much about U-Nee, but it’s easy to project upon her. Presenting a faux-sexuality brings one to a dark place. Men may not know how strongly their gaze may reconfigure a woman, especially one who goes from unnoticed to lusted-laden.
So much mental illness seems an issue of pressure and tension, of one’s internal feelings battling against personal and societal expectation. Pinky’s love for Minnie moving from obsession to action, Maya Deren’s housebound restlessness erupting as violent visions, and U-Nee’s forced sexuality triggering self-annihilation. When there are no other apparent outlets, one must take extreme actions. Before medication and expertise, the treatment of mental illness must start with an understanding of individuals who feel too ashamed or scared or proud to reveal what bothers them. Helping those people is less an issue of clinical treatment, and more a matter of changing society to a more accepting and expressive climate, one that appreciates the unique issues faced by women, in particular.