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Mental Disorders

by James Mangold (Director)
Columbia Tri-Star, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Dec 4th 2003

Girl, Interrupted

Susanna Kaysen's memoir Girl, Interrupted (reviewed in Metapsychology December 1999) has received wide critical acclaim, and the movie adaptation of the book by James Mangold starring Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Whoopi Goldberg and Vanessa Redgrave was also a box-office success.  The DVD supplies an excellent commentary by Mangold along with some interesting deleted scenes and an HBO First Look! show on the making of the movie.  As a movie, Girl, Interrupted is a compelling story with a more dramatic plot than Kaysen's meandering memoir.  Ryder is strikingly beautiful and fragile in her performance as Kaysen, her wide and dark eyes making her resemble a wounded faun, and she is perfect in this role. 

I am not normally a big fan director's commentaries, and I rapidly tire of hearing them go on at length about how great their work is.  However, Mangold (director of Heavy, Copland, and more recently, Identity) keeps his self-congratulation to a minimum and focuses on the challenges facing him in constructing the film and the works that influenced him.  Indeed, he works hard at explaining his directorial choices.  For example, the film was shot mostly at Harrisberg State Hospital in Pennsylvania and Mangold talks about how the space was so important to him.  He used a great deal of natural light in an effort to keep the atmosphere appropriate to the 1960s.  He also talks about the importance of The Wizard of Oz as an influence on conception of this film, and specifically the way that the entrance of the Angelina Jolie character was directly based on the entrance of the Wicked Witch of the East.  He mentions Slaughterhouse 5 and Black Narcissus as other reference points in the making of this film, which may inspire the viewer to go out and rent those other films to see the comparisons for themselves. 

One comparison that Mangold is reluctant to accept is that with Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (reviewed in Metapsychology August 2003).   Both are set in mental institutions, although Forman's is in the 1950s, while Kaysen's hospitalization was in the late 1960s.  The parallel between the two is somewhat obvious, however.  Both feature strong characters (Jolie's Lisa and Jack Nicholson's R. P. McMurphy) whose rebelliousness destines them for a hopeless fight against a more powerful system.  Both question the way that our society controls deviance through labeling people as mentally ill.  Indeed, both include scenes where the inmates are able to use the power of their labels to scare or intimidate other supposedly "normal" people, often with a great deal of humor.  Yet Mangold insists that his work is much more than a Cuckoo's Nest with women, and he has a fair point.  He explains at the end of the film that he created the scene in which Susanna stands up to Lisa precisely to avoid simply making a "chick-flick," instead making a far more dramatic climax to the story.  Kaysen's memoir has strong feminist leanings, and Mangold retains the suggestion that Susanna's diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder is rooted in confining female stereotypes, and that if she had been a boy, she would never have been hospitalized. 

Girl, Interrupted stands up well to repeated viewing, and this DVD helps to illuminate the creation of the film.  Recommended especially for those who prone to analyzing the depiction of mental illness, but also for anyone who enjoys a well-constructed story. 


© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.


Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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