N.28 - Psychoanalysis and Cinema: “Through a glass”

Introduction, Psychoanalysis and Cinema: “Through a glass”

Cinema and psychoanalysis, which shared simultaneous origins at the end of the 19th century, occupy a central place in contemporary culture. It is not surprising then that both film scholars and psychoanalysts should engage in what has increasingly become a stimulating interdisciplinary dialogue with each other. This has in recent years found its own regular space in psychoanalytic congresses, as well as in many dedicated publications. I shall indicate here the main directions such studies have taken. Some authors have identified important analogies in analytic and filmic structure, function and mode of expression (suffice to think of the concept of projection); “to a large extent, film speaks the language of the unconscious” (Gabbard 1997 [1]). Much reflection has addressed the creatively ambiguous space in both cinema and psychoanalysis located between reality and fantasy, documentary and fictional narrative, history and subjective experiences. More specifically the interest of several authors has focused on the oneiric world (Hollywood has always been described as a ‘dream factory’), for if dream interpretation constitutes the Royal Road to the unconscious, perhaps also the exploration of films may lead us in the same direction… Movies and dreams share a morphological equivalence insofar as both can be considered to express our latent unconscious wishes through their manifest contents, and both use, for the purpose of circumventing repression, similar mechanisms, such as condensation, symbolic expression and distortions of time and space. Analytic concepts such as that of a “dream screen” are relevant in this respect. Other authors, influenced by Lacan’s theories on the distinction between real, imaginary and symbolic orders, on the mirror stage of development, and on the dynamics of desire, have focused on the structures underlying the production of meaning in films. A criticism to such views is that they tend to describe the desire in film audiences in negative terms, as originating from an absence of the objects signified on the screen. Another topic of interest to psychoanalysts and film theorists alike concerns the tension spectators experience between on the one hand identifying with the perspective of the filmmakers and their camera, and on the other immersing themselves in the film’s narrative, feeling contained by it, and letting themselves be drawn into identifications with the different characters on the screen. Related to this, and itself a fertile ground of theoretical investigation, has been the research on the relationship, under the label of ‘spectatorship’, between cinema and its audience, for instance in connection with regressive elements (the dark room of the movie theatre as the symbolic equivalent of the intrauterine experience), voyeuristic aspects (the viewer’s curiosity for the Primal Scene to be enacted on the screen), or fetishistic components (the mass phenomenon of worshipping celluloid stars). This whole field has been enriched by feminist writings on the stereotyped representation and reproduction of traditional gender and family roles. The main body of psychoanalytic writings on cinema, however, consists in the interpretation of individual movies through a variety of theoretical concepts familiar to analysts from their clinical work – such as, depending on their orientation: the Oedipus complex, castration anxiety, archetypes, the symbolic order, the paranoid-schizoid position, the transitional space of creativity…. Mostly concerned with a detailed analysis of the unconscious aspects of narratives and characters, these texts enrich film theory with original and often controversial interpretations of movies, while the psycho-historical activity of speculating on the personality or pathology of the filmmakers themselves as revealed by their works has lost much of its initial popularity. We must point out here that while a ‘psychoanalytic cinema’ as a discreet genre does not exist, some films are particularly suitable for a psychoanalytic reading, and are in turn more likely to provide therapists with observations and insights useful in their clinical work. These films fall into three broad categories:

(a) those whose characters are portrayed in an explicitly psychological way, with much emphasis on their inner world and personality. These three-dimensional characters are represented in their ambivalent or conflictual aspects, with their past history taken into account and their unconscious motivations explored, thus allowing spectators to identify with them, rather then idealizing or denigrating them as they would with more superficial portraits of ‘heroes and villains’;

(b) those movies which deal with themes also familiar to analytic enquiry, such as crises in subjectivity related to developmental stages or acute existential and moral dilemmas, conflictual interpersonal constellations, and various mental pathologies (neurotic or narcissistic disturbances, sexual perversions and gender confusion, alcoholism and drug addiction, psychotic disintegration, etc.); and finally

(c) those films which, featuring as main characters analysts and/or their patients, attempt to represent (but often end up misrepresenting) psychoanalysis itself. In these films our profession is sometimes presented in the dramatically effective but inaccurate version of the therapist being engaged in the recovery of repressed traumas for the explanation of current events, with much use of flashbacks as the filmic device equivalent to memory. Freud may have been right then when he replied to Karl Abraham who had invited him to collaborate on the first film project on psychoanalysis: “I do not believe that satisfactory plastic representation of our abstractions is at all possible”. [2]

The publication of books and monographs on various aspects of the relationship between psychoanalysis and cinema, psychoanalytic journals regularly including essays on films, as well as increasingly frequent professional events where psychoanalysts debate their approach to cinema with filmmakers, and these discuss their movies with analysts, are evidence of the existence, and are instrumental to the growth, of a lively interdisciplinary dialogue between these two cultural fields. We psychoanalysts increasingly show an interest not only in offering original approaches to film studies, but also in valuing the contributions offered by those films which engage us emotionally as well as intellectually, which focus on characters portrayed in all the complexity of their personalities, and which emphasize subtleties of psychological and interpersonal experience. What the critical reflection on such movies can do for us analysts is to enrich our knowledge of the human condition in its normal and psychopathological manifestations, sometimes usefully reminding us of how unclear the boundaries between the two can be.

[1] GABBARD, G. O. (1997) Guest Editorial: The psychoanalyst at the movies. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 78(3): 429-434; p. 429.


[2] ABRAHAM, H. – FREUD, E. (Eds.) (1965) A Psycho-Analytical Dialogue. The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Karl Abraham. 1907-1926. London: Hogarth Press; Letter of 9 June 1925.


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