Looking Back on Cinema’s Most Captivating Unhinged Women

“Even so, I must admire your skill. You are so gracefully insane,” says Anne Sexton’s poem “Elegy in the Classroom.” And throughout cinematic history we’ve seen countless characterizations of women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, in the throws of psychosis, or those who have completely lost their footing in the world. These roles—from Mabel Longhetti in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence to Kirsten Dunst in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia—create poignant vehicles in which women can dive down into the depths of their own souls and bring forth some of the most incredible performances of their career.   

This weekend, Woody Allen’s latest summer film Blue Jasmine premieres, and for the myriad reasons why this is one of his best films in years, it’s undeniable that Cate Blanchett and the completely bewitching performance she gives is by far the most enticing part. In my review of the film, I said noted that: In the way that you felt exhausted—both physically and emotionally—after seeing Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master—the actor’s stamina in the role a marvel to watch—I left my screening of Blue Jasmine feeling more shaky and distressed than when I entered, my own anxiety and emotions unraveled by Blanchett’s bewitching performance.   

And as the best part of truly enjoying a film is to leave with that sort of strong physical reaction, we’ve decided to take a look back at some of the best unhinged female performances onscreen. From the terribly ill and psychologically possessed to those caught in the throws of everyday life’s small trauma, here are some of our favorites. Center your emotions and enjoy.

Gena Rowlands as Mabel Longhetti in A Woman Under the Influence

A housewife amidst an emotional breakdown who loves deeply but cannot express properly the pain within her heart.  

 

Béatrice Dalle as Betty Blue in Betty Blue

A volatile and highly-sexual woman who, after experiencing an emotional trauma, mentally unravels never to return.  

 

Julianne Moore as Linda Partridge in Magnolia

A pill-popping housewife who finally realizes her misdoings on her husband’s deathbed.    

Kirsten Dunst as Justine Melancholia

A manic depressive who finds herself finally at peace as the world comes to an end. 

 

Harriet Andersson as Karin in Through a Glass Darkly

A young woman recently released from the mental hospital suffers from hysteria on vacation with her husband and father.

   

Naomi Watts as Betty Elms / Diane Selwyn in Mulholland Drive

A possessed and devastated woman has become the shell of a person struggling to exist outside of a nightmare.

   

Ellen Burstyn as Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream

A lonely and self-conscious mother thinks she’s found the way to regain youth and admiration and loses her mind in the pursuit.

   

Isabella Rossellini as Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet

An emotionally unstable and horrifically frightened woman at the center of a murder.  

 

Bibi Andersson as Alma in Persona

A nurse put in charge of a mentally ill woman who finds their psyches melding into one.  

Gena Rowlands as Myrtle Gordon in Opening Night

An aging actress has an emotional and existential crisis after realizing her own morality and is haunted by the ghost of youth.

   

Candace Hilligoss as Mary Henry in Carnival of Souls

After a traumatic accident a woman is beckonded and possessed by an abandoned carnival.  

Elizabeth Taylor as Martha Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf

A mercurial aging woman in the throws of domestic turmoil.  

 

Charlotte Gainsbourg as She in Antichrist

A distressed, grieving woman goes to the woods with her husband and succumbs to the evils of nature.    

Margit Carstensen as Petra von Kant in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

An absolutely shattered, selfish woman hopelessly in love with a woman whose affections have waned.   

Theresa Russell as Milena Flaherty in Bad Timing

A highly-emotional and volatile woman in love with a stoic man whose repressed urges push her away and lead her to a breakdown.

 

Julianne Moore as Carol White in Safe

An affluent housewives grows increasingly ill and falls prey to chemical sensitivity.  

 

Laura Dern as Nikki Grace / Susan Blue in Inland Empire

The world becomes a surreal nightmare when an actress adopts a persona.  

Juliette Binoche as Julie Vignon – de Courcy in Three Colors: Blue

A woman grieving the death of her husband and child.

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