Filmmaker Mathieu Arsenault on recreating his own manic episode in his new movie

Head First explores mental illness via the Quebec director’s story and the bipolar past of two other artists.  

Mathieu Arsenault (photo credit: InformAction Films)

In 2014, filmmaker Mathieu Arsenault was working on a short film when people started to notice his behaviour change; he had increasingly grandiose ideas and boundless energy. He didn’t know it yet, but Arsenault was bioplar and in the throes of a manic episode that would result in his cashing out his RRSPs and leaving his toddler daughter and pregnant wife in order to travel to San Francisco where he met a woman he considered his cosmic twin and seriously considered starting a religion with himself as the spiritual leader.

It’s been four years and change since Arsenault was hospitalized following the episode. In Head First, which is out in theatres this week, he recreates it and explores the bipolar history of two other people: Frédérique, a 30-something photographer who had her second manic episode at about the same time as Mathieu, and Louis, a former rock ’n’ roll teen star who had his first episode in his 60s, after a life of abuse and excess. For Arsenault, the idea of making a movie about the experience came immediately as he was hospitalized.

“The manic phase is so impressive, it’s such a sensory overload, that I was already in the mood to tell the whole world about it,” he laughs. “But I needed to live through the other steps: hospitalization, depression and the return to a certain equilibrium. I’m happy I waited until I was better to make a film that wasn’t just about madness but also about how to get out of madness, because that’s a challenge in itself.”

One of the most surprising things about the film to someone like me, who has never lived through my own (or someone else’s) manic state, is how gradually the mania comes on and how quick people around the person in the manic state are to dismiss their behaviour as a passing anomaly.

“That’s what’s insidious and fucked up,” Arsenault says. “You wind up in these incredible realities. Everything seems perfectly real. You’re not on drugs or anything; often you don’t take anything at all. It’s just that your life transforms. I called it ‘a long, slow prayer.’ It was as if everything that I’d ever wanted since my birth was suddenly becoming real. Today, I know that it was a chemical imbalance in my brain and that it was purely artificial, but when it was happening, you can’t know. If I were to have another crisis now, I’d be more aware of what is happening. But then again, Frédérique was going through her second manic episode. Your brain justifies it as something that’s good and normal. It becomes reality. It’s extremely powerful.”

Frédérique Ménard-Aubin (photo credit: InformAction Films)

If there’s a common thread in all three of the manic episodes described in the film, it’s that they have a cosmic, psychedelic bent. I remark that I’ve never heard of anyone having a manic episode that pushed them to finish their law degree or start an insurance firm.

“Well, there are several phases to a manic episode,” Arsenault explains. “Before you lose it completely, there’s a phase called hypomania where you could start an insurance firm or do pretty much anything you want because you can easily work 20 hours a day. It’s as if you’re on cocaine at all times. But when your madness gets worse and you enter a manic state, you can go as far as psychotic mania, which is when I was hearing voices and thinking I was a snake god. People call it a mystic crisis, which is true to the extent that you have a spiritual contact. I was talking to trees and talking to people who died 2,000 years ago — there are all kinds of possibilities. But that led me to think that major religions were likely founded by people who we would now consider to be bipolar or schizophrenic. Jesus was probably schizophrenic! That was my plan during my episode: to move to Silicon Valley, become a spiritual leader and start my own religion. Even today, I would still say that I was connected to something. It’s not just madness — I was connecting with some pretty great stuff! I mean, my English was twice as good then as it’s ever been! I could have learned German! But on the other hand, it’s extremely dangerous — you could die simply because you have no inhibitions and you’d do pretty much anything.”

I ask Arsenault if, in the course of making the film, the man that he saw is one he would recognize as himself.

“There are two scenes in the film that are actual videos that I shot during my manic state, the videos where I’m talking to my daughter,” says Arsenault. In the videos, Arsenault is clearly on another plane, speaking emotionally and somewhat coherently to his toddler daughter, Lou. “Each time I see them, it’s extremely weird because I can see my body, I can see my mouth move, I can hear my own voice, but I know that isn’t me. There’s a small part of me, maybe because I’m talking to my daughter and the contact remains the same, but I’m completely gone. It’s someone else entirely. My girlfriend got back together with me — the fact that we’re still together to me means that I wasn’t in control. In a manic phase, you have no more inhibitions. It’s like being drunk or stoned. You’re obviously going to act differently. It’s a little strange to look at, but I do have respect for the person I was temporarily. I won’t deny it.”

Those two scenes are just about the only parts of the film that show Arsenault’s actual manic episode. The rest is made of reconstitutions and sometimes abstracted footage meant to represent what was going through his mind at the time — what he saw, or how he remembers seeing the world at the time.

“I don’t know if you remember, but there’s a sequence in the film where I’m filling a dress with trash,” he laughs. “When I was going through pictures of my manic phase, I remembered I was gathering all this trash to use in magic rituals. So I just redid it at home! I took my shoes off, I gathered trash and I filled the dress with it. Images like that, I just recreated. As far as I’m concerned, whether it’s ‘real’ footage or not isn’t really important. The important thing is the emotion. I had a very privileged point of view on all of it, because I lived it. When you make art, you’re touching on the divine. I could reconnect to my madness pretty easily, and I had a lot of fun making the movie. I didn’t want it to be a sad or pathetic film about mental illness. I put everything I had in it and I had fun.”

Louis Parizeau (photo credit: InformAction Films)

Both of the other people profiled in the film are also artists, and they and their partners or family members are also involved to some extent in the Montreal film or art scenes. It would stand to reason that these were people Arsenault knew outside of their shared bond — which isn’t the case.

“I didn’t know them before making the movie, but they were friends of friends,” he says. “They were part of the inner circle! The psychiatrist that treated me at the hospital told me that 90 per cent of his clientèle was made up of artists. When you’re an artist, you’re extremely sensitive, and that makes you predisposed to mental illness. So it happens naturally, in a way. There were other people who wanted to participate — I hesitated a bit when casting the movie, but both Frédérique and Louis were there from the beginning and they were incredible. I never hesitated.”

The artistic aspect of bipolar disorder is also its most intoxicating feature. Watching the film, I found myself a tiny bit jealous of the productivity and inspiration that the manic episode brought. Obviously, most of its effects are negative — but I found myself imagining that some people, in the throes of their mania, would likely try to weaponize it as a conduit for their art.

“Everyone wants that,” says Arsenault. “That’s why we take drugs, that’s why we get fucked up. When you get in a creative buzz, that’s an absolutely incredible feeling. But when you party, there’s a hangover. The further you go in your mania, the higher the costs. I would never have been able to make the movie that I made in my manic state. The manic state started while I was making another film, and that film never had the success that the documentary has currently. What is it really worth, in the end?” ■

Head First opens in theatres on Friday, March 22. Watch the trailer here: