The best of psych ward cinema

Peering into the asylum with the ultimate in institutionalised filmmaking

im_a_cyborg_but_thats_ok
I'm a Cyborg, but that's OK

After destroying many of her statues and accusing her artist lover Auguste Rodin of having stolen her ideas, French sculptress Camille Claudel was committed to an asylum by her family in 1913. She remained there for the next thirty years, despite protesting that she was sane. Her confinement is the subject of Camille Claudel 1915, the latest film by auteur of extreme emotions, Bruno Dumont. Psychiatric institutes have been the setting of a number of notable films by directors either fascinated by the tormented artist archetype, keen to explore an alternative to societal order, or determined to reveal the realities of life inside for the afflicted. Here are our picks. 

ASYLUM (1972) 

Influenced by existential philosophy, R.D. Laing was an advocate of the anarchy of experience and skeptical about many aspects of psychiatry. His controversial Archway Community project in London, in which patients and therapists lived together under the notion that in a free space the ill could heal themselves, is documented here by Peter Robinson and his crew during a seven-week stay. Screening as part of London’s Anxiety Arts Festival at Clapham Picturehouse on 28 June.

EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL (1970)

In an institution on a remote island midgets and dwarfs stage a debauched coup against those who have shut them up as “societal misfits” and denied them any individuality. While the meaning of this out-there classic has been much debated, German director Werner Herzog has himself been reluctant to offer explanations, saying it came upon him “like a nightmare”.  

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975)

Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Randle McMurphy is one of New Hollywood’s most iconic. Transferred to a mental institution after faking insanity to escape hard labour in prison, he finds himself pitted against the sadistic Nurse Ratched – who has the power to keep him there indefinitely, even whilst he rallies the other inmates toward insurrection. The film, based on Ken Kesey’s novel and directed by Milos Forman, cast doubt on electric shock therapy and on psychiatry as social control.

PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILD (1970)

Faye Dunaway delves into obsessive neurosis playing a pill-popping, nerve-frayed former fashion model who was mistreated by an industry she craved the attention of, and cast aside as her novelty waned. Isolated at a beach cottage, she relives the delusions of her past, reflecting in flashbacks on her mental disintegration and institutionalisation. A stunning-looking, under-seen gem from director Jerry Schatzberg, this is another of the New Hollywood era's finest.

SIENIAWKA (2013)

Sieniawka is a small Polish village close to the borders of Germany and the Czech Republic, and much of this film from Berlin-based director Marcin Malaszczak, which lies somewhere between documentary and sci-fi fable, takes place in its psychiatric clinic. The narrator reminisces about working there while wandering the sun-dappled grounds as the patients chat and smoke amid their rigid routine, before he leaves again for an outside world which has been plunged into apocalyptic chaos. 

GIRL, INTERRUPTED (1999)

Adapted from a memoir by Susan Kaysen, this drama sees Winona Ryder play a budding writer who is checked into a psychiatric hospital after taking an overdose of aspirin. Angelina Jolie – in the era she was more about blood-vials than matriarch of human rights – outshone her performance and won an Academy Award for her role as the apparently sociopathic patient she befriends and starts making ward mischief with.

AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE (1990)

Socially awkward and out of step with provincial rural life, Janet Frame barely escaped a lobotomy after being misdiagnosed as schizophrenic and committed to a psychiatric institution for years of shock treatment. Only released after her gift for writing was discovered, she went on to be recognised as one of New Zealand’s greatest novelists. Her autobiography is the basis for this intense and sensitive film on her life from director Jane Campion.  

TITICUT FOLLIES (1967)

Documentary-making legend Frederick Wiseman started his career with this little-seen film which observes the callous and coercive routine treatment of the patients of the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts by guards, social workers and psychiatrists. The controversial and profoundly unsettling film, named after a talent show put on by the patients, was banned by the state as an invasion of privacy until 1991.

12 MONKEYS (1995) 

Inspired by Chris Marker’s legendary 1962 short La Jetee, Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi is set in a post-apocalyptic Philadelphia decimated by a deadly virus. Travelling back in time to collect information on the virus, James Cole (Bruce Willis) is forcibly placed in a mental institution for observation, where he encounters an animal rights fanatic (Brad Pitt) who founds a terrorist organisation called Army of the Twelve Monkeys, suspected of masterminding the outbreak.

I’M A CYBORG, BUT THAT’S OK (2006)

Oldboy director Park Chan-wook blends his penchant for extremity and violence with lighter quirk in this richly coloured, genre-mashing hybrid from South Korea, set in a mental institution. Radio factory worker Young-goon (Im Soo-jung) has become a psychiatric patient after trying to plug herself into a wall outlet, convinced that she is a robot that needs recharging. She embarks on a romance with anti-social kleptomaniac Il-soon (Rain), who believes he can steal people’s souls.

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