Reeling with Ryan Lattanzio

This Week: Female Trouble

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I've been waiting for this moment, when I can write the column of my dreams, and I owe it all to Facebook. Amid the stinking wasteland of notifications that keeps on growing, I happened upon an event: "Mind and Body Awareness Week at Cal." The kicker reads: "Learn more about mental health and the connection between how you think, feel, behave and learn." Well, why would you want to be all kumbaya with your fellow head cases if you can watch mental deterioration onscreen from a distance? It's just more fun.

Mental health is something I know well, cinematically speaking, not only because I call myself a cinephile - a diagnosis that beautifully merges cinema and philia and oh, how perfect for this column - but also because I have a hungry fetish for films about crazy people.

Cinema is an especially shrewd apparatus for bringing out human madness. It shows the impossible-to-visualize psychic distress of the madman, but film can even more viscerally imagine the madwoman. A certain 2010 film I've already discussed ad nauseum - and seen six times, how crazy is that? - does exactly this, honing in on a girl pirouetting off the deep end.

If female hysteria isn't already its own canon, I'd like to canonize it. Hollywood has explored the radical potential of all woman-mind, especially Hitchcock (see: bird victim Melanie Daniels) but the most truly demented dames walk cinema's psychiatric wards on the outskirts of Hollywood, in cult films.

In broaching the iconography of female hysteria, we can't ignore the evil sexuality of the blond naif Carole in Roman Polanski's 1965 horror de force "Repulsion," perhaps the prototype for all the batshit crazies thereafter. And then there's She in Lars von Trier's "Antichrist" (2009). While She, played with witchy cunning by Charlotte Gainsbourg, literally excises - in that infamous quick snip of her clit - the sexual demons that possess her, Catherine Deneuve's Carole exercises power over imperious male suitors by killing them in her mind, even when they just want to take her to lunch. But neither can really exorcise their evil nature because it is entirely innate. From birth, these prurient priestesses of mania shouldn't have been left alone.

Sharing She's favorite pastime - self-inflicted genital mutilation, of course - one of the kinkiest of all coo-coos is Erika (Isabelle Huppert), the title character in Michael Haneke's dark, devious "The Piano Teacher." But Erika takes it further when she attempts a roll in the hay with Mom. For someone this far-gone, this is just another day.

Unlike these leading ladies, the muses of dark magician David Lynch invoked in his surrealist companion pieces "Mulholland Drive" and "Inland Empire" aren't clinically mad. Instead, they complicity swan dive into darkness because they're curious as to how close to the edge the leap will bring them. Their consuming curiosity is, like mine, to go deeper, to see how bad it gets. Lynch's approach to the female schizoid is less a meditation on being insane and more on becoming insane. As the assault of warped Lynchian visuals mounts, we start to lose just as many marbles as his characters.

But there are more realistic films that normalize madness and find it in the kind of people we could easily know in life. One such classic is John Cassavetes' "A Woman Under the Influence." Ahead of its time then and now, this 1970 film stars goddess Gena Rowlands as Mabel, a housewife and mother who can't keep her erratic behavior in check. But in attempting to tame his shrew, and keep her from slitting her wrists, Mabel's husband Nick finds that her nervous habits are actually quite endearing.

Strangely, I find all these women endearing. Cinema can help us love people like these who we'd otherwise shudder at in real life. "You love crazy women," my friends always tell me. Yes I do, and I'm not apologizing for it. So this week, don't apologize for losing your own mental faculties when you can instead enjoy watching others lose theirs, and their genitals.

Assess Ryan's mental health at [email protected]

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