Every time someone enters the movie theatre and sits on the chair, for the next two or three hours, they are induced to the act of delusion. When the screen lights up and you experiencing watching a film, your life stops existing and you give your time to someone else completely new, who lives on the other side of the canvas.
Delusion, a fixed false belief that is resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact, has been greatly explored in film since the very beginning. It is utilised as a social critique, a plot device or to show the characters mental situation (being many times related to mental illness). This list features 20 films that, for several reasons, portray the character’s inability to distinguish reality from fantasy and how tragic, or funny, that can be.
1. The Wizard Of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939)
By Helping kids to understand life, turning adults into better people and inspiring directors and writers to create their own magic world, The Wizard Of Oz became one of cinema’s greatest masterpieces and, although it was made in more than seventh five years ago, it still dazzles audiences all over the world.
The story is deliciously simple: a young girl named Dorothy (Judy Garland) travels to a enchanted foreign land with her dog Toto. She encounters the Good Witch who tells her that if she wants to get back home she must follow the yellow brick road and find the Wizard of Oz.
On her way she meets a Scarecrow who wishes to have a brain, a Tin Woodman that wants a heart and a Coward Lion in need of courage. As they fight the adversities on their way, the characters fulfil their wishes, and promises, in the most unique manners.
The movie works with delusion in several levels. Firstly, the predominant action of The Wizard Of Oz takes place in a dream, in which Dorothy fantasises about a colourful world filled with peculiar characters and majestic places, in order to escape her own reality.
Secondly, inside the dream, Dorothy discovers that the great Wizard of Oz is in fact a façade and the whole Land of Oz lives under false assumptions that their leader is a gifted man. Finally, the delusion of greatness, in other words, the constant seek for a better version of ourselves, when we can find that within.
It is impossible to explore the whole context of this film in an article such as this one, however the most important thing about it isn’t understanding every nuance of greater meaning but to experience the spiritual journey it allows you to have, no matter who you are.
2. A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951)
Based on the homonym play by Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire narrates the disgraces of Blanche DuBois, brilliantly played by Vivien Leigh. The lead character arrives to New Orleans to live with her sister and is faced with a degraded home and an hostile environment caused by Stanley (Marlon Brando), her sister’s boyfriend.
Unable to come in terms with each other, Blanche can’t stand Stanley for his abusive nature and he doesn’t like her, considering her a phoney and thinks her pursue for his friend Mitch is suspicious. The claustrophobic situation intensifies as the characters reveal their true intentions.
Delusion is a state of mind shared by all the four main characters. Blanche hides her past life and acts as if she lives in a totally different situation, her lies and delusions are what keep her alive. Stanley believes he’s a good man and looks for forgiveness every time he shows his true colours, as if nothing had ever happened.
Stella lives in the hope that her soon-to-be husband finally changes his behaviours and they can be happy. Mitch is fooled into thinking Blanche is a completely different woman until he is shown who she really is.
A Streetcar Named Desire is, until this day, regarded as one of the best movies of all time, carried by the strong screenplay and the powerful performances.
3. Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)
There were very few films that explored the dark side of Hollywood before Sunset Boulevard. The movie was not only considered groundbreaking at the time, for the way it dealt with the themes of the consequence fame and delusion, but it is actuality still seen as a very important movie that hasn’t aged a bit.
This tragedy starts with the lead character’s body floating on a pool as he narrates the events that led him to his death. The lead character is a unsuccessful screenwriter (William Holden) who decides to take the job of writing the screenplay for the hopeful comeback of silent-era legend Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). From there on, the screenwriter is pushed to stay at her house as she falls in love with him and drags him into her very bizarre world.
At one point of the film responding the affirmation that she used to be a big star, Norma Desmond says: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small”. This line of dialogue alone shows the state of delusion the lead character lives upon. In fact, the actress was big in the silent-era, but with the change to the “talkies” she lost her fame, the problem is she never quite realised that and kept living as if she is the great star, she once was.
4. Grey Gardens (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, 1976)
There is no need to search through fiction to get a sense of what it is to live in a state of delusion or decay. Take a look at Grey Gardens, a documentary about the day-to-day life of mother and daughter, Big and Little Edie Beale, ex-socialites and relatives of Jackie Onassis.
In 1971, they were exposed in the news for living in deplorable conditions on their Summer house, in times having one of the most beautiful gardens in New York, and the incident caught the eye of filmmakers Albert and David Maysles (also responsible for Gimme Shelter) who were working on Jacqueline’s sister documentary and opted for showing the Grey Gardens duo.
The most interesting thing about this film is that no brilliant mind could ever thought of such characters as Big and Little Edie, these women were too out of his world to ever be invented. The documentary doesn’t try to accomplish anything in particular and let’s the two eccentric and fascinating leads carry it with their rumbling about accomplishments and regrets, as they face a house that reflects what society has done to them.
For 100 minutes, the viewer is consumed by a very complicated relationship between mother and daughter and their illusions of greatness as they go through life in their own unique way.
5. Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)
Aronofsky is no strange to the theme of delusion, being somehow portrayed in every single one of his films, but Black Swan takes the lead character’s state of deluding into a whole another level.
Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballet dancer in New York. Following the principal ballerina departure, in a ballet company, she is casted as the lead dancer in the adaptation of The Swan Lake. Nina can accomplish the white swan easily, but her difficulty to let go of herself causes doubts to director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) if she can play the black swan.
The arrival of a new dancer (Mila Kunis) who threatens to take Nina’s spot, and the constant practice to perfection, take Nina to a breaking point, in which she starts physically transforming into the the black swan.
Arguably one of the best american films of the 21st century, Black Swan is a mysterious and alluring film that pulls the viewer to the centre of the action, as they witness Nina’s descent into madness, and the loss of her own identity, in order to play the black swan. The movie is very affective in showing the character’s delusion with some chilling scenes like the finger cutting, the mirror reflection and, mainly, the climatic final dance.
6. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
“Are you talkin’ to me? Well, I’m the only one here” is one of the most frequently quoted lines in cinema, but few times it is given the right importance to its meaning. De Niro improvised the line while shooting and, perhaps because he was so in character, he understood that it sums up the character’s motivations and reasons why he turned out the way he did.
A mentally damaged Vietnam war veteran decides to work as a taxi driver by night, putting his wasted time with insomnias to good use. As he examines the current state of the city, and awkwardly connects with a beautiful campaign volunteer, for a presidential candidate, and an underage prostitute, violence seems like the only viable solution for his situation.
The cab driver is one of the best cases of anti-heroism in cinema. Excluded by society and living in a city in constant change, the audience sees that every cab ride around New York is like a travel inside the character’s mind, with confusing streets and roads leading up to no where. Roger Elbert described the character in the best way: “We have all felt as alone as Travis. Most of us are better at dealing with it.”.