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Girl Interrupted Angelina Jolie
Angelina Jolie plays the beautiful, but dangerous, patient Lisa in James Mangold's harrowing 1999 film Girl Interruptedvia

Tracing female hysteria on film

Sexual awakenings, suicides, and psychosis: revisit some of on-screen’s most poignant moments of madness

Carol Morley’s new film The Falling hits screens this week, a dark portrayal of an outbreak of mass hysteria at a girls’ boarding school in the 60s. It is the story of a best friendship turned sour, sexual awakening and the twilight of childhood, which channels the kind of eerie energy seen in Picnic at Hanging Rock. Morley once again addresses the otherness to the charisma normally associated with young women. From the very public fainting of the pupils to a mother’s private agoraphobia, the narrative of madness at the heart of the film is portrayed as distinctly feminine. Here, we pitch it against other portrayals of mental instability on celluloid.


Adolescence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Dazed cover star Maisie Williams plays Lydia, whose childhood best friend Abbie (Florence Pugh) is transforming in front of her eyes into a sexually active young woman with new experiences and physical changes. As their relationship disintegrates, so too does Lydia’s grip on reality, but when do acts of teenage transgression cross the line into genuine insanity?


In Sofia Coppola’s first full-length feature, the Lisbon sisters are a quartet of bright, beautiful young women, sheltered from the world by their Puritanical parents, whose deaths shake a small town. The Virgin Suicides looks at madness in the supernatural time between girlhood and womanhood, just like The Falling. But by framing the narrative in the boys’ perspective, Sofia Coppola frames this time as an otherness, the unknown. At the same time, it is an otherness that the boys and therefore we as audience can see as being attractive.


In this riff on Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Nina (Natalie Portman) is driven to distraction with jealousy of her rival Lily (Mila Kunis). Darren Aronfonsky sets a story of madness in the grotesquely competitive world of professional dance in which we see a woman fighting for her chance in the limelight against her demons, real, imagined or perhaps both.


It’s every man’s worst nightmare – there you are, trying to live your life after a little extra-marital affair and she just won’t fade into the background. Glenn Close plays Alex, the seductress with a blonde perm and a manic desire for Dan (Michael Douglas) with whom she had a dalliance. She will stop at nothing to torment Dan and his wife Beth (Ann Archer), whose horror and dismay are used to offset the insanity of this harpy in shoulder pads.


After an overdose, Susanna (Winona Ryder) is put into a mental institute where she greets a whole rainbow of women with psychiatric problems. The psychotic Lisa is both the most repelling and entrancing of all. Like The Falling, this film addresses the borderline of madness, portraying women who seem to toy with the idea but who can ultimately free themselves.


“Is everyone in your family stark raving mad?” In Melancholia, Lars Von Trier addresses depression in the story of two sisters. Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, struggling to consolidate her seemingly perfect life with feelings of despair that prevent her leading a normal life and destroy her marriage before it is a day old. A blue planet named Melancholia emerges from nowhere to collide with earth and though some predict it will pass, others, especially Justine, are convinced it will destroy Earth.


In the film adaptation of her daughter Christine Crawford’s tell-all memoir, Hollywood actress Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) is put under the microscope. The film portrays the flip-side of an outwardly perfect femininity with all its neuroses. Adopting the blonde, blue-eyed Christine at the beginning of the movie through clandestine means, Joan is a vain, cruel and abusive mother, a pantomime villain to rival Maleficent.


Hysteria, the original female madness, was diagnosed by the ancient Greeks as the case of a wandering womb but the malady really came into its own in the 19th century, when nascent psychology deemed any woman transgressing the meek, subservient stereotype to be off her rocker. This tells the story of Dr Granville (Hugh Dancy), who is believed to have invented a noble cure in 1880 – the vibrator. Bizarrely casting the early vibrator as a rotating duster of ostrich feathers, this artistic version of history sees Maggie Gyllenhaal almost save the film with a turn as the outspoken suffragette type.


Christina Ricci plays Elizabeth Wurtzel, a precocious journalism prodigy about to embark on her studies at Harvard. But she soon gives in to self-destructive tendencies, losing her virginity to the first boy that catches her eye and leaving friends and studies by the wayside for a party lifestyle, helped along the way by a fractured family life. When she should be seizing golden opportunities like a writing gig with Rolling Stone, she winds up on the psychologist's couch with a dependency on Prozac.

FISH TANK (2009)

Excluded from school, 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) is frustrated by her life on an Essex council estate, getting into fights and getting drunk on cheap cider. When her mother brings home a new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender) who takes a shine to Mia, a new sexual chemistry in the house that adds to the volcanic tension Mia faces. In the end, she learns that a horse she tries to liberate has been put down, emblematic of the death of any childhood innocence Mia might have had.

The Falling is released in the UK on 24 April 2015