Emma O’Donoghue checks out Cecily Brennan’s part documentary, part dramatised art-piece which investigates the connection between madness and artistic creativity.

‘We misunderstand madness and we misunderstand creativity.’
Cecily Brennan

Directed by Irish artist Cecily Brennan, this part documentary, part dramatised art-piece explores the supposed link between artistic creativity and insanity – the tension between order and disorder. It interweaves snippets of interviews on the subject of art and madness with emotive scenes of a young artist ‘Paul’ (played by Marty Rea) struggling with the onset of a full mental breakdown.

Though short (35 minutes), The Devil’s Pool is a potent mix of visceral intensity and cerebral stimulation, raising many questions and inviting the audience to examine their own attitudes towards the subject matter. Dr Simon Kyaga of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm discusses studies that have been done on incidents of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder among the creative professions, while Prof. Patricia Waugh of Durham University explains how, throughout history, artists seek expression through the ‘breaking of habits’, yet this has always been seen as threatening to bourgeois society. Playwright Frank McGuiness and poet Paul Muldoon speak about the illusive idea that embracing insanity might somehow ‘unlock’ new levels of creativity previously unknown to the restrained and conformed mind.

These fascinating interviews are intersected by scenes of Paul in a white space – some unknown place in the pit of his mind. He desperately tries to take control of this space by carefully drawing thick ruled lines on the walls, with the words ‘I am not going mad. I am in control’ written on them. But Paul cannot find the words to express his inner torment, nor can he contain the sloshes of black paint that swirl around his feet, devouring and blackening this clean, white place. There is something inescapably grim about these scenes. They overwhelm the senses by providing a visual representation of the frustratingly slippery and painfully isolating world of insanity – that ‘unavoidable darkness’.

In a brief Q&A after the screening, Cecily Brennan said, ‘we misunderstand madness and we misunderstand creativity’. Throughout history, the greatest problem for the artist is that there has always been a dangerous allure and romanticism surrounding the notion of being driven insane by your art, when in fact there is no art in madness. In melancholy, despair and insanity there can be no illumination, nothing can be created. As Paul Muldoon explained, artists like Sylvia Plath were ‘driven mad by the myth’, believing that transcending sanity was a door to true art, when in fact this is nothing but an insidious fallacy.

This is a provocative piece of Irish filmmaking that delves into the dark recesses of the mind in an effort to extract some insight. It daringly explores a side of art that is often discussed, but seldom understood.

Click here for further coverage from the 12th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

The Devil’s Pool: Madness, Melancholia and the Artist screened on Tuesday, 18th February 2014 as part of the 12th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival (13 – 23 February 2014).