‘Christine’ is a film based on a true story that looks at depression seriously and sensitively – read our interview with the lead actress about tackling mental health onscreen
We need to talk about mental health in film. With a release like Split reaching cinemas and carelessly broaching the topic, there’s clearly plenty of work still to be done. Which is why Christine feels so crucial right now. Antonio Campos’s astute, emotionally complex drama, starring Rebecca Hall, is a rare story that takes depression seriously. Instead of portraying Christine as “crazy”, the film humanises her, while exploring how easily extreme anxiety can go unnoticed in the workplace.
Without burying the lede, Christine’s other headline hook is its eye-opening real-life inspiration. In 1974, newsreader Christine Chubbuck (embodied excellently by Hall) committed suicide live on air, shooting herself in a TV studio. Unbeknownst to colleagues, she was a depressed, 29-year-old still living at home, who had recently informed by a doctor she might be infertile. The stress of a male-dominated career environment and its mantra (“if it bleeds, it leads”) only worsened her wellbeing. If mental illness was less of a taboo subject, could a tragedy have been prevented?
In the role of Christine, Rebecca Hall is the knockout lead the film requires. She nails her character’s various tics, her offbeat movements, her knack for disguising inner sadness from concerned faces. At the same time, she’s performing in other ways, either practicing in front of mirrors or just faking confidence in everyday scenarios like we all do. With Christine out later this week, we spoke to Hall about the film’s weighty themes, responsibilities and parallels with modern media trends.
There’s a problem with how mental health is depicted in films, but Christine takes great care to humanise someone with depression.
Rebecca Hall: I think it’s entirely the reason to make it. I mean, there’s an irony at play here, because we wouldn’t be talking about her were it not for her death. But her death isn’t the reason to make the film. It’s more to claim everything that she symbolises – which, of course, wouldn’t exist without her death, but to make all of that the talking point, rather than the act itself. It’s about everything that comes with thinking about her: whether it’s the media, and where it was then and where it’s at now; whether it’s mental health issues and how he we still have a hard time talking about it.
A lot of people are suffering and still have a hard time asking for help. You look at her, and she’s definitely someone who doesn’t have the capacity to understand what she’s going through or to reveal to anyone what she’s going through. She’s very closed off. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, to show someone who’s inaccessible, but at the same time, reveal everything she’s going through. But that was the reason to make the film.
What I found moving was that she actually does try to get help, and everyone around her is sympathetic. It’s not like a traditional Hollywood narrative where there’s a Bad Guy, or a major flashback that explains it all.
Rebecca Hall: There’s nothing reductive. There’s no sense of “this is the reason why” – and I think that’s brave and the right thing to do. For nothing else, we don’t really know. The answer to those questions go to the grave with her and are very complicated.
Also, it’s more artful filmmaking, in a weird way, to present someone and give the audience the experience of getting right up and close and personal with that person, and to watch them very intimately. But at the same time, you’re watching them as people around her would have watched her. You’re not granted access to the full story. But you’re still asked to sympathise without knowing everything there is to know about her. Because we don’t. We constantly come across people in life and think, “There’s something up with that person. I don’t know if I can ask them if they’re OK. I don’t know what’s going on.” You never know the full story of anyone, but you can still feel something. And that’s human. The more we access that ability to feel compassion for people around us, we do better.
“You never know the full story of anyone, but you can still feel something. And that’s human. The more we access that ability to feel compassion for people around us, we do better”
Why does this incident from 1974 feel very relevant now?
Rebecca Hall: In 1974, there was a real feeling of paranoia and uncertainty. There was a real sense that America was a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Nobody knew where it was going, and nobody could tell you the stakes weren’t life or death – you know, coming out of the 60s with all that turmoil and change. And I don’t know that we’re so different now.
Well, Donald Trump’s doing his inauguration speech right this very second.
Rebecca Hall: Right now, as we speak. It feels like there are a lot of parallels. I think “if it bleeds, it leads” journalism and clickbait are the same thing. We’ve pushed it to the extreme of what was just beginning. Christine, in a strange way, saw the way the world was going, and that was part of her anger.
Do you think Christine was protesting the media?
Rebecca Hall: I do. It’s a protest of someone with severe mental health issues, so it’s not a rational decision. But I do think she was making a primal scream about not liking the way the world was going, and she knew she wouldn’t survive it.
Christine criticises the “if it bleeds, it leads” reporting style. How did you ensure the film didn’t follow that route, and that it wasn’t exploitative?
Rebecca Hall: I know – it’s a huge risk, because how do you make a film that’s about someone who makes a statement about exploiting suffering for entertainment, without exploiting suffering for entertainment? There’s a version of the film that does that, and it holds all of those truths, and I think that’s the version of the film we’ve made. Is it challenging? Yes. Is it confronting? Yes. Will it disturb you? Yes. But it will make you think.
Recently, there have been some people who Periscoped their suicide. Is there a natural urge to share one’s suffering?
Rebecca Hall: I think it’s really upsetting, and it’s really frightening that we now have the technology to make these things much more mainstream than they could ever have been. If Christine had done what she did now, the footage would be everywhere. We shouldn’t see that. It’s not to be seen. It came from a very bad place. We should understand and sympathise and think about what she means, but we don’t need to see that footage. And if she’d done it now, it would be everywhere. It says something about our culture, and the fact we need better mental health care.
This idea that things don’t exist unless they’re in front of the camera, is something we’re all living with. Everyone’s making false versions of themselves, and Christine was the early prototype. There she was, someone who was profoundly socially awkward, choosing a career that meant being in front of the camera and constantly performing the best version of herself for the camera and hoping that that would be OK. Thinking she’d make her life OK if she succeeds in front of the camera. The greatest irony is when she dares to truly reveal herself, her biggest truth – which is her tragedy, her illness – is the moment that she both exists to the world and ceases to exist. That’s profoundly tragic.
Christine is in cinemas and on digital download 27th January, and available on DVD 27th February. If you ever want to talk about mental health, please contact MIND