For my penultimate look-back at the Cinematic Representations of Mental Illness course I attended at Crouch End Picturehouse late last year, there was something of a shift away from more recognised mental disorders to consider narcissism. Whilst a degree of egocentrism is an adaptive quality to ensure a level of self-belief, narcissism goes beyond this to a disproportionate level of investment in the self over that afforded to others. Sigmund Freud wrote an essay on narcissism, theorising that it represented a neurosis that can isolate the individual via the level of disinterest in others to which it can lead. Then there is also a definition of narcissistic personality disorder, marked by a deluded sense of self-importance and grandiosity that renders empathy impossible and leads to a sense of entitlement, exploitation and envy of others, all undercut by a fragile self-esteem.
As a trait, narcissism—whether or not it is strictly pathological—can make for compelling characters with considerable dramatic value of the kind that viewers love to hate, and so it is not an uncommon archetype in drama and comedy. All three of these movie choices—each of which is an adaptation from a novel—exemplify that archetype in one way or another.
I struggled to engage with American Psycho on first viewing, much as I had struggled with the prose of Brett Easton Ellis, the original novel’s author. I did, however, really enjoy the Almeida Theatre‘s premiere of the musical adaptation several years ago, which featured a revelatory turn from Matt Smith as its protagonist Patrick Bateman and successfully conveyed the material’s black comedic heart, and hence I approached a second viewing of this movie adaptation with an open mind, perhaps for the first time engaging with the material on its own terms.
Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is, superficially at least, a successful New Yorker living the high life as an investment banker at the height of the mid-Eighties era of Reaganomics, fetishising the shallow, materialistic details and vanities of his daily routine. (In a throwaway moment, his head is turned when he thinks he has spotted Donald Trump’s car.) He hates his associates and his fiancee, though, and his superficial fixations ultimately drain his individuality to the extent that that he finds himself a victim of mistaken identity, his peers becoming doppelgängers for him and for one another.
Bateman makes for an unreliable narrator—although by its nature the film adaptation is less ambiguous than the first person narrative of the original novel—such that his descent into hyper-violence as his “mask of sanity” slips cannot necessarily be taken literally, instead revealing the story’s twisted satire of the vacuous lifestyle that he idealises. In a telling early scene, Bateman’s voiceover reveals as much of his character as do the visuals as he peels off a skin treatment face mask:
There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman—some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me—only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable, I simply am not there.
I will necessarily spoil certain key aspects of Gone Girl here in considering its psychology. Adapted by Gillian Flynn from her own novel, it at first appears to tell the story of how Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) becomes the prime suspect following the tragic disappearance of his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike). In a mid-movie reveal, however, it becomes clear that Amy faked her own disappearance having learned that her husband had been unfaithful, setting up a new life for herself whilst in the process leaving a trail that would incriminate him by way of revenge.
The media attention is piqued over Amy’s disappearance due to her having been fictionalised by her parents in a series of books as “Amazing Amy”, an idealised version of herself to which she could never live up. This, then, is a play upon both the personality’s disorder’s inflated sense of self and its true nature as a lack of self-esteem, her parents partaking in the creation of her disorder having exacted a kind of cruelty upon their daughter:
With me—regular, flawed, Real Amy—jealous, as always, of the golden child. Perfect, brilliant Amazing Amy.
Amy’s deceitful, manipulative behaviour sees her represent the so-called dark triad of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, and in particular the latter, in not too dissimilar a fashion from American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman. The prominent “MISSING” poster seen during the search for her provides its own visual clue as to her true nature as a lost soul.
All three of these film choices have an unusual tone to them that befits the kinds of characters that they portray, and none more so than that struck by Nicole Kidman‘s impressive turn as Susanne Stone, a woman obsessed with becoming a top broadcast journalist who by sheer determination forces her way onscreen as a weather presenter for a local cable station. In a similar vein to American Psycho, the very pursuit of the American Dream is being satirised in this comedy-drama, as is the modern narcissistic drive for infamy at any cost and for any reason.
I was, however, surprised to learn that the screenplay is based on a book by Joyce Maynard that explores the real-life case of Pamela Smart, who conspired with an underage lover to murder her husband. In the film, Matt Dillon plays the poor, unsuspecting spouse who meets an untimely demise when his plans for a family threaten to thwart Suzanne’s ambitions. At this, Suzanne seduces a naive student, Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), one of the subjects in an artless documentary she is in the process of filming, and manipulates him and his friends into killing her husband.
Speaking in sound bites that help formulate her mask of a fictionalised version of herself, Suzanne makes for an all-too-recognisable screen presence:
You’re not anybody in America unless you’re on TV. On TV is where we learn about who we really are. Because what’s the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody’s watching? And if people are watching, it makes you a better person.
Not for no reason does narcissism so often seem to be deployed onscreen and on the page to satirise the vacuous pursuits of the modern world. In each of these films, a personality disorder is represented as a method of revealing a deeper truth about the nature of our society, its reflection of what drives many to attain fame and material success naught but an ugly expression of an existence without true meaning.
Once again, I will close with a recommendation to follow course lecturer Mary Wild on Twitter and to give the Projections podcast a listen, which is co-hosted by Mary and has discussed different movies around many of the same groups of mental illness covered in this course—and more besides. Furthermore, Mary returns to the Crouch End Picturehouse next month for a run of her popular course “Women in Horror Films“, which I am very much looking forward to attending.
Next: the final instalment of this look-back on the films featured in Mary’s previous course with a consideration of three cinematic representations of Borderline Personality Disorder.