In my final look-back at the Cinematic Representations of Mental Illness course I attended at Crouch End Picturehouse late last year, I reflect upon three films we considered that portray Borderline Personality Disorder.
A broad diagnosis taking in a range of characteristics, Borderline Personality Disorder is marked by emotional difficulties with the self and in relationships, including in regards to self-image, impulsivity, intense emotional responses to situations, and extreme fear of and reaction to abandonment or rejection. The disorder bears a strong correlation to child abuse and especially sexual abuse, affects women more often than men, and has frequent comorbidity with depression, substance misuse, and eating disorders, as well as a very high suicide rate—around one in ten. As a diagnosis it is not without controversy; onscreen, it has a degree of popularity given how it makes for unpredictable characters with a broad emotional range, although it is also prone to falling into stereotypes if not executed with sensitivity.
Fatal Attraction turned out to be one of the most interesting inclusions of the entire course for me. The biggest box office success globally in the year of its cinematic release, it is a film I recall seeing as a teenager when it first appeared on television a few years later, and taking at face value without giving it too much thought at the time. It tells the tale of a love affair between publishing editor Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) and married family man Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), and of the escalating fall-out when Dan seeks to end it.
Dan—a type of role that was quite typical for Douglas in this period of his career—is portrayed as the more relatable character of the pair in spite of his self-centredness. By contrast, Alex bears the burden of responsibility for their affair, not least due to her response: she takes his rejection badly, stalks him, feigns pregnancy, attempts suicide, and—perhaps most memorably of all since it birthed the phrase “bunny boiler“—kills the family’s pet rabbit on the kitchen stove.
Perhaps it is a film that has not aged well given how society’s understanding of mental illness has—in some respects, at least—advanced in the past three decades, but I do find it a little depressing to find it and Alex Forrest still being included on such lists as “film’s deadliest female psychopaths” with little or no nuance. The character’s lack of a backstory in the film arguably doesn’t help in this regard. Indeed, Glenn Close had been concerned at how to portray Alex and consulted with psychiatrists as part of her preparation, during which she was advised that, based on the script, Alex seemed to be suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder.
Perhaps most noteworthy in terms of how the character of Alex is perceived, however, is how the film ends and and how this varies from the original version. As originally scripted and filmed, Alex commits suicide using a knife that bears Dan’s fingerprints from a prior violent encounter, leading to him falling under suspicion of having murdered her. Following audience reactions to test screenings, this ending was eschewed for one in which Alex is killed in self-defence after she comes to Dan’s house and attacks him and his wife.
During the original ending’s suicide sequence, Alex is listening to Madame Butterfly, a reference that survives in the released version of the film in a scene in which a dejected, distressed Alex is seen listening alone to a recording of the opera. Most recently, Close discussed this more sympathetic and nuanced representation of Alex with film critic Mark Kermode in his Kermode on Film podcast in January, during which she agreed with his assertion that the original version deserved to have been retained, whilst also acknowledging why the change was made:
Yes, that was the character that I created and that I loved and I believed in. She was not a psychopath; she was a damaged, needy person. And so the thing about the Madame Butterfly (ending is that) it was seamless, but it was seamless in a way that American audiences get very upset by. They have the fight, his fingerprints are on the knife, and when she kills herself with the same knife he was sent to jail for it. That’s kind of a seamless, wonderful film noir ending, and for her that was the true ending. I think she was much more self-destructive than a psychopath.
The one thing that happened that never was shot was, in the beginning of the film, there was supposed to be a scene where she was at the opera—with an empty seat beside her because she had invited Dan—watching Madame Butterfly kill herself because she’d been abandoned. And not having that scene I think took away from the beautiful ending, that she chose to end herself the way she had seen Madame Butterfly (do so), and it was about being rejected and the pain of that rejection. And also she had a whole history that was my secret but was never in the script, so I always will feel that the original ending was the right ending, but I don’t think the film would have been the huge hit that it was without that re-shot ending, which basically gave the audience her blood, which is cathartic.
The audience wanted to feel that there was hope that the family would be okay, that they would get back together. The last shot is a long tracking shot focusing in on a picture of the mother, father, and child, and that’s classic, that’s making people not go out of the theatre just upset but with a little bit of hope. But it was at the expense of who I thought Alex really was… What I think would really be interesting would be if you took the exact same story but you wrote it from her point of view, she would become a tragic… figure, because people would understand the why of her behaviour.
Tellingly, Glenn Close has gone on to campaign for mental health awareness, ultimately founding and chairing Bring Change to Mind, a US-based organisation dedicated to ending the stigma of mental illness. This was in direct response to mental health conditions surfacing in her own family, but I can’t help but think that the lack of appreciation of Alex’s “true” nature in Fatal Attraction might also have been a factor. If so, perhaps this is the film’s most meaningful legacy.
Released five years after Fatal Attraction, Single White Female brings us another example of a female character suffering Borderline Personality Disorder in Hedra “Hedy” Carlson (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a troubled young woman who is selected by Allison “Allie” Jones (Bridget Fonda) to be her new roommate. Gradually, Hedy becomes more and more obsessed with Allie and her life, mimicking her look and identity, impersonating her, and ultimately committing a series of violent acts that hasten a deadly showdown between the pair.
In Hedy’s attempts to copy Allie’s identity, we encounter the disorder’s lack of a defined sense of self, which is only compounded by the sense of rejection when Allie asks her to move out of her apartment. In the course group’s discussion, we reflected back on how, in the disorder’s lack of a clear sense of self-identity, it is similar to narcissism. We also drew comparisons back to Shame and Carey Mulligan‘s character, Sissy, as a further—and arguably more nuanced—example of the disorder onscreen.
Here we do have some sort of background for Hedy, who had a twin sister that drowned at a young age; Hedy lies about this, though, claiming she was stillborn, leaving us to speculate as to precisely what were the circumstances of her death. This loss of her twin enhances or at least mirrors her lack of a sense of self, too. Nevertheless, she is hardly sympathetic, even down to the rather tired trope of her ensuring Allie’s pet dog falls to its death from their apartment to signal the nature of her character.
Popular public perceptions of Hedy weren’t all that removed from those of Fatal Attraction‘s Alex, with Jennifer Jason Leigh winning the MTV Movie Award for Best Villain in 1993. It seems that moviegoers’ views of such a character were—and arguably still are—prone to being simplistic in nature. Single White Female offers a more rounded character in Hedy than Fatal Attraction‘s final screen version of Alex, but its narrative nonetheless sensationalises her condition in its audience-grabbing reliance upon sensationalism and cliché.
Another couple of decades on from Single White Female, Thirteen brings us the most sympathetic and tragic representation of Borderline Personality Disorder from this selection of films. Tellingly, it was co-written (in less than a week) by one of its stars, Nikki Reed, and loosely based on her own life in her early teens; that authenticity most definitely translates to the screen.
Thirteen focuses upon Tracy Freeland (Evan Rachel Wood), the increasingly wayward daughter to Melanie (Holly Hunter, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal), a divorcee and recovering alcoholic too distracted by her own life to take sufficient notice of her daughter’s condition. Initially a model student, Tracy befriends Evie Zamora (Reed) at school, and begins an indulgent slide into ever riskier delinquent behaviour, from petty criminal behaviour through substance abuse and underage sex. Tracy’s life spirals way beyond any typical adolescent experience, her disturbance of identity and apparent recklessness heightening this to a frightening level. The hand-held camera style lends the film a documentary-like experience that only compounds its unsettling tone.
In terms of my own response to the film, at first I found myself judging Tracy’s behaviour as simply brattish and annoying, but the power of the performances and its dramatic slide into chaos soon shifted my perspective. Ultimately, as Tracy’s condition becomes more self-evident, her breakdown and tentative reconciliation with her mother—whom we speculate might also be a sufferer—are both tragic and deeply affecting.
All in all, this final trio of films made for a fitting and thought-provoking finale to the course, prompting me to examine some of my own preconceptions of personality disorders. In their own way, I’m sure that each of these films has also contributed something to the maturing of that conversation. No matter how some people may seem to be acting out, unsociable and unpredictable behaviour may—more often than we often take care to acknowledge it—offer clues to mental ill-health and personal trauma.
I will close this look-back with one more recommendation to follow course lecturer Mary Wild on Twitter; she runs a number of insightful courses, bringing her psychoanalytical perspective to a host of themes, and you can find out more details of them on her feed. Also, do check out the Projections podcast, 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 much more besides. It is never less than an entertaining listen, I am now a loyal subscriber, and am thrilled to be able to reveal that I will soon also be making a guest appearance!