Girl Interrupted (1999), set in the late 1960s, centers around a young woman who is sent to an institution after attempting to commit suicide (although she denies this was her intention). The film depicts the fine line between insanity and the natural confusion that comes with coming of age and choosing (or actively not choosing) a path. This film insightfully portrays the issue of mental health and stability in a time when the subject was delicate to say the least.
Throughout the film the viewer is constantly questioning whether Susanna, the protagonist, is actually mentally ill or simply self-indulgent, attention-starved, or just confused about life and it’s meaning. The American society depicted in the film is composed of an older generation that stresses normalcy and seeks to conceal mental illness and an upcoming, liberally minded, youthful generation that seeks to discredit institutional ideas such as mental illness. In either case the world of mental illness, and those who suffer from it, are considered socially reprehensible and this in turn causes isolation in the patients from the rest of society – a gap they long to bridge.
The desire for normalcy and wellness amidst the mentally ill characters of the film is exhibited in this scene from Girl Interrupted that takes place in the home of Daisy, a former patient at the institution who has since been released and supposedly “cured”. The mise-en-scène of this scene both depicts the past by recreating an image of a classic 1960s household, as well as emphasizes the differences in mental states of the characters and the desire of some of them to overcome this state and conform to their average surroundings.
The house is a typical 1960s home, utterly average in its appearance but very fitting of the time period. Color plays an important role in this scene. Most of the house is yellow (the kitchen, the flowers, the couch, etc.) as if projecting a forced sense of cheer upon its inhabitants. Daisy even wears a yellow bathrobe as if trying to integrate herself into the uniformity of her kitchen and embody the forced brightness of her surroundings. There is a motif of flowers in the scene (the painting and wallpaper) as if promoting life throughout the house. The acting in this scene is instrumental in revealing the underlying contrast of the characters to their surroundings. As the conversation between Lisa and Daisy escalates, the characters’ façades unravel and their true mentally unwell natures are inevitably revealed. None of these characters is as normal, much less as happy, as their setting might indicate. Even surrounded by the necessary props for a typical 1960s existence, the characters are unable play the part of the mentally stable and socially acceptable.