Marie Grahtø has made her feature film debut with “Psychosia”, a psychotic realism film that follows the story of two bonding woman, a dedicated suicide researcher and a suicidal patient at a psychiatric ward.
WEEKEND: Can you tell us what inspired you to make your first feature film about psychosis and how your personal experiences had an influence in the outcome?
Marie Grahtø: I had psychotic episodes in my twenties. In this period of time I felt separated from life. I was living with a kind of parallel world, which was extremely confusing to navigate. Psychosis is an existential earthquake, and it takes years to build yourself up afterwards and get a grip on reality. I needed to turn this into Cinema, which is my form of expression. I tried to create a universe where the characters are in a struggle with themselves and their surroundings on an existential level. A universe where the world feels far away even when it is close up. We all struggle with negotiating our different parts within ourselves, but most people feel that all parts are integrated in a singular “self”. When a person becomes psychotic the feeling of this singular “self” is crystallised into many pieces, and negotiating one’s different parts becomes very confusing, because one is constantly confronted with the question: “Who am I?”. This experience of being alienated from oneself can also create a feeling that ‘time’ is not linear. There is a paradox to this feeling of alienation - on the one hand one cannot connect to the surroundings, and on the other hand there can also be a feeling of melting together with them. This internal push and pull between what is real and what is not, together with the experience of a non-linear time, I have tried to create in a cinematic experience.
“Psychosia” tackles mental illness as a main topic, something that can still be seen as a social stigma nowadays. What do you want to communicate with the film and why do you think it is important to shed light on the subject?
It’s becoming increasingly clear that a lot of people in our society are being medicated, are experiencing mental illness and thoughts of suicide, and the suicide rate is growing. Mental illness is hard to understand because you can’t see it. When someone having a tough time is just sitting around, staring into space, it might look like they’re not doing anything, but they’re actually doing an enormous amount of inner work to try to get better, or even just survive. There are primal forces in the psyche that we can’t really grasp. Film is the perfect art form to investigate these inner existential roller coasters. And for me it was also really a stubborn need to be brave and tell my story very publicly, painfully aware that there is a lot of stigma socially, and that I may for example lose jobs on that account - a not uncommon story told by people who have experienced mental illness, even though they are now well. But if we don’t talk about it, then people suffer alone, and that is even worse.
"There are primal forces in the psyche that we can’t really grasp. Film is the perfect art form to investigate these inner existential roller coasters."
How did you address the challenge of portraying mental illness? Could you explain the techniques you used to visually show the main characters inner selves?
Visually we had the strategy to use a lot of close up portraits combined with large images, and we have used a zoom to generate fast og slow movement towards other people. We wanted to constantly shift between being close up and far away. This was to try to generate the feeling of the characters’ yearning to be close to one-another, but not having the inner resources to do so. Another example of this is represented in one take where we rewind Viktoria’s movements to illustrate that she is trying to get closer to Jenny, but is pulled back by a greater invisible force. Furthermore, my photographer, Catherine Pattinama Coleman, had a great idea that we should use Lens Baby and Split focus within this strategy. The Lens Baby was able to create a distorted closeness with the characters, and the Split focus could visually split the characters and their surroundings into two.
According to the aesthetics and costumes of the characters, it is unsure when the film takes place. It seems you created your own timeframe. What are your thoughts behind this?
My experience of time when I was ill was very fluent - past, present, future could feel very arbitrary to me. This is not an uncommon feeling within people that experience psychosis. And I must say it can be quite interesting if one learns to use it within a creative drive. I have taken an interest in the dispute between Henri Bergson and Einstein on the “subjective time” vs. “The Scientific time”. This discussion embodies Cinematic language for me. In my personal healing and preparing for this film I have read a fair amount of psychoanalytical literature and I wanted to create a time in the film that operated with fluctuating “signs”, so that past, present and future melted together. The character Viktoria’s costume is inspired by the Victorian age, when psychoanalysis was born, but at the same time the Jenny character is wearing Kawasaki shoes. This is an example of how we played with “signs” in the details so the film’s universe came to work within its own time-structure. A kind of de-construction-re-construction that is also seen in the photography and editing style.
"In my personal healing and preparing for this film I have read a fair amount of psychoanalytical literature and I wanted to create a time in the film that operated with fluctuating “signs”, so that past, present and future melted together."
“Psychosia” started as a short film “Teenland”. Can you tell us about your references and inspiration for the film and how it developed from being a short film?
It was in the beginning of the development that Teenland was the outset. I developed the film for three years before the shoot, and during this time the idea moved away from Teenland. The only thing they have in common is that they both work with altered realities and a story centred around a struggle between two characters. But Teenland was in the Sci-fi/Fantasy genre and Psychosia is what I call Psychotic Realism. When I developed the script for Psychosia, I transcribed Ingmar Bergman’s Persona from beginning to end, to learn how he had built his film structurally. I wanted to examine how a film consisting largely of scenes with two people interacting in different spaces could become interesting. It is one of my favourite films and the title Psychosia is a reference to Persona. Combined with inspiration from the title Fantasia, the title Psychosia came to life. Our film shows the psychiatric institution with almost spa-like features sometimes, in order to mirror the idea of historic sanatoriums. Bright light and beautiful interior. It is Psychosia. We chose to create this mise-en-scene because we wanted to show a dreamy institution - a psychotic fantasy.
As a first time feature filmmaker, in what ways was the filmmaking process challenging? What did you learn on the way?
I chose to tackle how my personality structure and my experience of being - not seeming to be, but being - affects my cinematic language. I wanted to try to take control of these often unconscious impulses and put them into words, images, an uncompromising story and formalistic style. We often talk about intuition, and that is always a factor, but I wanted to try the impossible and attack intuition to dissect what was going on and put it into a structure that was fathomable for myself. How does one show how it feels to be in-between realities or in simultaneous realities? It was challenging and I most certainly did not succeed in shedding light on all the dark corners of my intuition during the process - this is most likely impossible - but I am grateful I tried. Now I can navigate more precisely within my own ideas. But of course - making Cinema is a life long learning process! To develop a formalistic cinematic language for a film, is for me, very much connected to deep psychological mechanisms within myself that I try to connect to the characters’ way of experiencing their lives. It is a highly creative and fun mental space to enter and translate into Cinema with the highly skilled artists in my cast and crew.
What can we expect from you in the future? Do you have any upcoming projects you would like to share with us?
I am currently working on two feature film projects. One is a more commercial film, a book adaptation, and the other is a pure arthouse film. But it is too soon to say more about them at this point.