One of the worst parts of mental illness is that the experience often eludes description. (John Keats’ “wakeful anguish” comes close.) One of the best descriptions I’ve found is from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: “Everything you see gets ugly. Lurid is the word … I fear this feeling more than I fear anything, man. More than pain, or my mom dying, or environmental toxicity. Anything.” It is the “lurid” quality that is so impossible to describe to people who have never experienced it. To go personal for a moment, during one of my breakdowns (my preferred term), I looked up at a bright pink sunset sky, and had the distinct impression that the sky had ripped open, that some invisible layer had flipped down like a flap on a piece of paper, revealing a sea of blank pink nothingness beyond. I thought the world was ending, that I was perceiving a catastrophe no one else could see. To this day, I think of that pink sky and shiver. It was the beginning of something, of reality unhinging.
In the “lurid” realm, Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” is another reference point for “The Swerve,” where Catherine Deneuve’s submissive character deteriorates rapidly when left alone in the apartment over a long weekend. Grasping arms emerge push through the walls, shadows come to life, the ceiling gets lower and lower, a rapist hides in the corner. The final shot of “The Swerve” echoes “Repulsion”‘s final shot. Kapsalis is well-versed in his “women going off the rails” movie history.
None of this would register, however, without Azura Skye’s tremendous performance, as unblinkingly honest as anything Rowlands has done, although with its own specific rhythms. Skye’s face looks literally crushed at times, like her cheekbones have shattered, like something inside has collapsed, structural integrity breached. The deterioration progresses, and Skye meticulously tracks it: by the end she is unrecognizable from who she was at the beginning. Skye brings to the breakdown a feeling of inevitability: all this has been in Holly for decades. Skye’s work is not ingratiating to an audience, and uncompromising in its devotion to raw reality. Her choices are huge, and it’s astonishing the depths she is capable of going to. There’s no bottom. When Holly eats a piece of apple pie, alone in her kitchen, her lips jerk back, baring her teeth which then clang on the fork. It’s ferocious, animal fangs, fury now out in the open. In such details great performances are made and this is a great performance.
It’s not a requirement that art provide comfort, although many critics and audience members reject a film for being “depressing.” Roger Ebert’s thoughts on the 2005 film “The Weather Man” are appropriate: “One of the trade papers calls it ‘one of the biggest downers to emerge from a major studio in recent memory—an overbearingly glum look at a Chicago celebrity combing through the emotional wreckage of his life.’ But surely that is a description of the movie, not a criticism of it. Must movies not be depressing? Must major studios not release them if they are?” Promoting a hopeful message is fine, but not all art has to operate that way. Films about mental illness are often well-meaning but come from an outsider perspective, as opposed to straight from the heart of the lurid abyss. Films like “Repulsion,” “Melancholia,” “The Babadook” … are willing to go the distance, to depict the experience without necessarily showing the light at the end of the tunnel. The ending of “The Babadook” is one of the most accurate portrayals of “living with mental illness” I’ve ever seen. “The Swerve” is the opposite of comforting.