Relationships and Mental Health in ‘Dahlia’

Dahlia is a beautifully animated film that explores being in a relationship against the backdrop of mental illness.

The film opens with the female protagonist drawn in black and white—little dots zoom around her until one enters her head. The female sits in a beautiful flowered landscape by a river with her male lover—he hands her a flower then enters the nearby river, inviting her to join. She enters hesitantly at first then swims towards him. More white dots surround her and she begins to sink. The world becomes black and white for a moment until she rushes from the water, leaving her companion alone. He comes to comfort her as more white dots swarm. They go to sleep—two white dots enter her head and suddenly she is gone, consumed in a world of blackness while her companion looks for her above ground. He takes some pink seeds and plants them. The seeds bloom into a field of pink flowers. He reaches his hands below the surface and retrieves his lover, pulling her into an embrace in the field of flowers. He plucks one and presents it to her, as with the beginning of the film. They walk off together.

Dahlia’s unique animation style resembles an impressionist painting in motion—the filmmaker utilizes its abstract qualities to create compelling images about struggling with mental health. The film relies heavily on color and the lack of it to show the protagonist’s struggles with mental health—in some moments, she is able to stave it off, remaining colorful and bright, but in others it overwhelms and consumes her. The motif is powerful in that it illustrates that struggling with mental health is a constant internal battle. The white dots that swarm the protagonist and enter her mind are representative of the intrusion of negative thoughts—though seemingly small, the film does an excellent job illustrating how they can take root in her mind and grow to overpower her.

The motif of sinking is also very powerful in exploring questions about mental health, showing the toll mental illness takes on individuals and those who are close to them. The sinking shows that fighting a mental health issue can often feel as difficult as fighting against gravity; further, it shows that it is not something that simply turns on and off but rather is an always present state that a person solely flickers in and out of. The literal absence of the protagonist when she sinks into one of these episodes is also an interesting insight, showing how people no longer feel like themselves when they are mentally ill. It sensitively depicts how difficult it can be to be in a relationship when you are mentally ill in that you can only feel present some of the time.

The ending of Dahlia presents an interesting statement. In many respects it is hopeful. The protagonist has found a partner who can help pull her out of her mental health slumps. They walk off together in happiness. However, the image of him handing her a flower at both the beginning and end of the film also hints at a certain cyclical nature to the narrative. Through this lens, the ending is highly realistic, in that it does not suggest the protagonist is “cured” of her mental illness—there will continually be more struggles for the protagonist and her paramour. Rather, Dahlia teaches its viewer to appreciate and celebrate moments of happiness, even if they are ultimately transient.

Samantha Bloom

Samantha is a graduate from Stanford University with a B.A. in English with an emphasis in creative writing. Her previous writing projects have included a satirical Silicon Valley musical, a short film that moves the story of Jekyll and Hyde onto social media, a short film about female embodiment in the modern age, and short stories galore. She’s an obsessive fan girl with an affinity for 80s pop, science fiction, and quirky historical facts. She hopes to be a writer for TV and/or film one day.

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