Political Film Review #578

Patients are now accustomed to signing their name multiple times before their blood is drawn or other medical procedures are undertaken. But up to 1985, mental patients were deemed incompetent, so decisions were made for them without consultation, as the opening scene vividly demonstrates.

Diagnosed with chronic paranoid schizophrenia and slight mental retardation after self-admitting, one day Eleanor Riese (played by Helana Bonham Carter) telephones Colette Hughes (Hilary Swank) from St. Mary’s Hospital in San Francisco, saying “I want a lawyer.” When Hughes goes to the hospital, Riese hires her after a peculiar conversation, one of many extraordinary encounters. A former nurse who once worked in a mental hospital, Hughes has found the perfect plaintiff whose case can liberate hundreds of thousands of patients being given medicines without their permission—lacking “informed consent.” She teams up with Mort Cohen (Jeffrey Tambor), a law professor at Golden Gate University, and files a case argued by the latter on Fifth Amendment grounds (lack of due process in determining treatment). They lose in Superior Court but win on appeal, when Hughes insists on the argument that involuntary treatment violates the First Amendment because patients are deprived of conversation with doctors regarding treatment, including objections to medicines with adverse side effects. Although the hospital appeals to the California Supreme Court, Riese wins again in 1989. The ruling allows patients committed for 3-14 days to object to antipsychotic medicines except in an emergency or after a court determines that a patient lacks legal (not medical) incompetence.

Fascinating are the antics of Riese, who counts the number of steps up to the courtroom, but also of Hughes’s personal life. The two bond, and Hughes overworks to the point of developing shingles. Hughes has been living with a physician, and their loving relationship is also revealed. Although the climax of the case is victory for Riese, who can remodel her apartment, an epilog concerns a personal tragedy that in effect validates the legal pursuit. Titles at the end inform what happened to the principals involved. Directed by Bille August, with some filming in Germany, the Political Film Society has nominated 55 Steps for best film exposé and best film on human rights of 2018. MH

In the 19th century, up-and-coming artists headed for Paris, banding together to provide subsistence similar to what La Bohème portrays. Vincent Willem Van Gogh (played by Willem Dafoe), not recognized as a great artist by his contemporaries, cannot not abide how the group operates. Neither can his best friend Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac). After Van Gogh consults with Gaugin and his brother Theo (Rupert Friend), he retreats to Arles and later Auvers-sur-Oise, Val-d’Oise to paint landscapes, for a while joined by Gaugin. Art theory populates some of the narrative, as the genius of Van Gogh is to go beyond the popular impressionism of the day to provide an almost three-dimensional view of whatever he paints—and he paints quickly (75 oil paintings in 80 days while in Arles, 860 in his entire life). The focus is on the personality that drives him to paint, so filmviewers observe someone with social anxiety disorder (a diagnosis a psychiatrist applies to Trump) who channels his fears by painting and feels relief while in beautiful parts of France, where he sees “nothing but eternity.” However, he is treated as a freak in the countryside, and he is incarcerated in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence mental institution after slicing his ear. But the film gives a false account of his death at age 37. Directed by Julian Schnabel, a credit at the end reveals that an album of sketches confiscated from him in the 1880s was discovered in 2016. MH