MAD? begins with the elderly Miriam Kohen being admitted to a geriatric mental health facility—against her will. This is the ultimate violation for the wealthy recluse, who never leaves her Upper East Side mansion. Yet it is that very same townhouse—littered with empty vodka bottles, take-out containers, papers, art supplies, and her beloved paintings—that has landed her in this dreaded hospital. Miriam must spend 28 days under evaluation to determine whether she is mentally fit to care for herself and by proxy her property. Miriam, however, doesn’t believe this is about her best interest. Instead, she’s convinced her son and neighbors are conspiring to take control of her property for their own purposes.

Immediately upon entering the hospital, the viewer understands that this is no normal place of medicine. From the murals on the walls to the staff’s behavior, one thing is clear: this is a world beyond reality.

For Miriam, the hospital, where strange things are happening, is a total affront to her extreme libertarian views. She rails against the system that put her in such a place and everyone in it, starting with her roommate Judy. Miriam instantly clashes with Judy in a microcosm of the rifts created in our country by economic inequality. Judy resents the special treatment Miriam receives in the hospital because of her wealth. It’s only because of Miriam’s privilege (in terms of not only money but also race) that she’s allowed her unconventional flouting of the rules both within the hospital and without.

Miriam, while revolted by Judy’s working class crassness, is intrigued by her roommate’s bizarre relationship with Simone, who visits the hospital as Judy’s sister/girlfriend. Whatever the true nature of their association, these two women work the system by taking turns going in and out of the hospital as patients. They are a classic dysfunctional, co-dependent couple. (Judy is hyper aggressive, Simone desperately weak.) Yet, it is precisely Judy and Simone’s strange symbiosis that allows them to survive in a social order that works against them.

The carnivalesque hospital is a tour of Miriam’s fixations and fantasies. Attracted to sex and violence, she has dark dreams and provokes her fellow patients and staff with taunts. At the same time, her imprisonment in the medical facility is a manifestation of her greatest fear: the loss of control. The hospital is a metaphor for the crushing conformity required by culture, in which the head physician Dr. Bono literally is a killer. Miriam furiously tries to regain her agency by continuing to make art, settling for the crayons the hospital provides over her oil paints left at home.

In MAD?, director Saskia Rifkin explores the contradictions of privacy and mental illness, female victimization and aggression, privilege and confinement in a hyper-stylized atmosphere that is as unsettling as her subject. Three elderly female patients holding apples in a tableau vivant of Raphael’s
The Three Graces; an African-American nurse erotically sharpening her scissors; a West-Side-Story-type dance fight over a peanut butter and jelly sandwich: these are just a few in the film’s surreal parade. However, nothing is more subversive than the depiction older women’s sexuality. This is the film's act of defiance against the shaming norms of our society, where the aging female body is hidden to the point of taboo. In this imperfect landscape, women’s bodies are seen—and so are the relationships they create to survive the forces seeking to destroy them.
Not Rated
Drama, Women and Film, Aging
Saskia Rifkin
Catherine May Levin
Suzanne Bertish

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