Andrea Sabaddini – Cinema and Psychoanalysis


The Lumière brothers showed their first short movies in Paris in 1895, and in that same year the first psychoanalytic book, Freud and Breuer’s Studies on Hysteria was published in Vienna.

However filmmaking and psychoanalytic work enjoy more than just common and simultaneous origins at the end of the 19th century. There is among these two disciplines what was described as a kind of “elusive correspondence” that includes some remarkable analogies between filmic language and the analytic idiom used to describe mental processes; in Glen Gabbard’s words, “to a large extent, film speaks the language of the unconscious” (1997, p. 429). For instance, the psychoanalytic notions of screen memories and of primal scenes might also be suitable definitions of films; the concept of  projection is crucial to both cinema and psychoanalysis; free associations, mostly visual in the former and verbal in the latter, have in both idioms the purpose of encouraging the exploration of deep emotional meanings and of the often uncertain boundaries between reality and fantasy. Given this common ground, it is not surprising that screenwriters and filmmakers should in their works adopt, and as it happens also frequently abuse, psychoanalytic ideas about human experiences.

It is worth pointing out that at first analysts limited themselves to an application to film criticism of the concepts they were familiar with from their clinical work – such as, depending on their theoretical orientation, the Oedipus complex, castration anxiety, archetypes, the death drive, the symbolic order, the paranoid-schizoid position, etc. They focused their attention, sometimes with the help of a detailed textual analysis, on the films’ narratives and characters, or even on the personality or psychopathology of the filmmakers themselves, as revealed by their work.

Today psychoanalysts, while having to a large extent given up the sterile activity of analyzing filmmakers from their products, still continue to enrich film theory and to provide original and often controversial interpretations of individual movies. Sometimes they also engage in the study of a film’s structure and of its technical features, or of its aesthetic and historical significance; at other times they research such cultural fields as spectatorship reception. What’s most encouraging, though, is that in recent years a new interdisciplinary dialogue has developed between our two cultural fields, and psychoanalysts are now also showing an interest in the contributions that films can offer them. In particular, those of us working as therapists feel that we have much to learn from those films which involve 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 viewing of such movies can do for us is to enrich our knowledge of the human condition, both in its normal and psychopathological manifestations, sometimes usefully reminding us of how unclear the boundaries can be between the two…

Numerous publications, as well as increasingly frequent professional events where psychoanalysts debate their approach to cinema with filmmakers and these discuss their movies with analysts, attest to the importance of such cross-fertilizing interchanges.


Let me now offer you a couple of personal examples of this fruitful dialogue between cinema and psychoanalysis.

The first one illustrates how filmmakers, while being sometimes suspicious that psychoanalytic interpretations could impose unintended meanings on their work, can at other times be open to consider that some of their artistic choices may be motivated by factors outside their consciousness. Histoire d’Eaux (2002) is a ‘short’ about the passing of time as a subjective experience, showing that different temporalities can easily coexist. In the course of the round-table conversation with its director, Bernardo Bertolucci, which followed its screening at a psychoanalytic film festival, I commented that the lyrics of ‘Un anno d’amore’ (Mina’s love song being heard diegetically from a radio in the background) were consistent with the main message of the film. Although this was quite obviously the case, Bertolucci at first objected, claiming that he had chosen that music simply as a friendly gesture towards Pedro Almodóvar who had used that same song in one of his films. However, on second thought Bertolucci admitted that it could not have been a coincidence that, of all songs available to him, he should have ended up picking one that was so relevant to the content of his film. Unconscious reasons for his choice, and for then justifying it to himself and to our audience with a rationalization, must have been at work there, and he was pleased that our discussion had allowed him to learn something about his movie, and potentially about himself too, that he had been hitherto unaware of.

My second example will instead illustrate how a film could help us become more conscious of certain aspects of our psychoanalytic work. Michael Radford’s Il Postino (1994) is the fictional narrative about a simple postman who, charged with delivering daily the mail to Pablo Neruda, exiled to a small island, develops a personal relationships with that famous poet while engaging in learning from him about verse, metaphors and rhymes.  After watching that film, I realized that there were interesting similarities between their friendship and the analytic relationship itself; that the daily encounters between the village postman and Neruda were comparable to therapeutic sessions; and, more specifically, that the feelings that il postino was developing for the poet had strong transferential connotations. From reflecting on that film, I thus became more vividly aware of the extent to which language, and a sensitivity to the sound and shades of emotional meanings of words, is crucial to both the poetic and the analytic experience. Furthermore, as Neruda, having then departed from the island, soon forgot about his friend thus leaving him in a state of bewildered despair, I was powerfully reminded of the importance of the phase of termination of the analytic relationship and of allowing for a proper working through of the mourning process in order to minimize the sense of abandonment, betrayal and loss in our most fragile patients, if not also in ourselves.


While a ‘psychoanalytic cinema’ as such does not exist, certain films are undoubtedly more suitable than others for a psychoanalytic reading, and are in turn more likely to provide us analysts with observations and insights potentially useful in our clinical work. These films fall into three broad categories.

To the first one belong those works where filmmakers portray their characters in an explicitly psychological way. The emphasis here is not so much on fast-moving action and dramatic plots, or on the display of striking special effects, but on a detailed study of the inner world and personality of the main characters. In these movies people are often represented in their ambivalent or conflictual aspects, their past history is taken into account and their unconscious motivations are explored, generalizations (of the ‘goodies versus baddies’ kind) are avoided. These film characters, in other words, are more three-dimensional, allowing the viewers to recognize them as real people and therefore to identify with them in all their often disturbing contradictions, rather than idealizing or denigrating them. Comfortably fitting into this group are, for example, many films from the Nouvelle Vague of French cinema, by such auteurs as François Truffaut, Louis Malle, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer; this last one stating that his movies “deal less with what people do than with what is going on in their minds while they are doing it”. A statement that may as well apply to our therapeutic approach to patients.

The second category of films popular among psychoanalytic critics includes those works which deal with themes also familiar to analytic enquiries: crises in subjectivity related to developmental stages or acute existential and moral dilemmas (by such directors as Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Krzysztof Kieslowski); conflictual family constellations, often with an emphasis on incestuous themes (Luchino Visconti, Bernardo Bertolucci); different forms of mental pathology, such as neurotic or narcissistic disturbances (Woody Allen); sexual perversions and gender confusion (Pedro Almodóvar); and psychotic disintegration. It must be noted here that many movies on madness, including some of the best (such as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, 1965 and David Cronenberg’s Spider, 2002) tend to associate psychosis with murderousness, or even to fall in the horror genre, thus reflecting instead of challenging common stereotypes about mental illness.

In the third and last group I have included those films which have attempted to represent the psychoanalytic profession itself: those movies, that is, whose main characters are a psychoanalyst and/or a psychoanalytic patient. One of the problems concerning many of the representations of our psychoanalytic profession in film is a certain confusion, especially in the minds of Hollywood filmmakers and their audiences, between psychoanalysis and psychiatry; such a confusion is at least in part justified by the fact that, until recently, all American psychoanalysts also happened to be psychiatrists. It is a small but significant detail that in such important films on mental institutions as Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit (1948), Nunnally Johnson’s The Three Faces of Eve (1957) or Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963), psychiatrists always display portraits of Freud on their walls. In the majority of the films belonging to this third category, psychoanalysis has been presented in the dramatically effective, but inaccurate, version of the therapist being engaged in the cathartic recovery of repressed traumas for the explanation of current events, with much use of flashbacks as the filmic device equivalent to memory. This approach has been exploited, among others, in some of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, such as Spellbound (1945) and Marnie (1964).

Some of the most interesting films whose main character is a psychoanalyst are Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s Secrets of a Soul (1926), John Huston’s Freud, The Secret Passion (1962), Nanni Moretti’s The Son’s Room (2000), Joacquin Oristrell’s Inconscientes (2004) and Hugh Brody’s Nineteen Nineteen (1985). This last one deserves a special mention here: it is about two former patients of Freud’s who meet up in Vienna in the 1970s to reminisce about their lives and their tumultuous analytic experiences (their biographies are based on two of Freud’s celebrated case studies). The narrative unfolds within a structure of four inter-related levels of discourse. At the first level we witness the interactions and dialogues between the two characters concerning themselves as they are in the present, in their late sixties, and their relationship. At the second level we are spectators to their recounting of events, impressions and fantasies about their personal and collective history. Then, in flashback we are offered, at the third level of discourse, the reliving of the past, either in colour during their troubled adolescence, on and off the couch; or in archival black-and-white newsreels, family movies and still photographs. And finally, again in flashback, we have the ‘material’ they present to Freud himself in his Berggaße consulting room. We the viewers (and they, the patients) never actually see Freud, but only hear his reassuring off-screen voice from behind the couch.


A special place in the dialogue between psychoanalysis and cinema concernsdreams. As their interpretation constitutes, according to Freud (1900), the Royal Road to the unconscious, perhaps also the exploration of films may lead us in the same direction… The association between movies and dreams must be powerfully established in our culture, if I still remember that, as children growing up in the 1950s, when reporting to our friends our dreams we always mentioned whether they were in colour or black-and-white. I suppose that children of the previous generation may have commented on their dreams as being silent or talkies. Let me remind you here, by the way, that Hollywood has always been described asa ‘dream factory’.

Movies and dreams seem to 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. These include (in films, especially at the editing stage) condensation, displacement, symbolic expression and distortions of time and space.

Secrets of a Soul [Geheimnisse einer Seele] and Spellbound, which are two of the films mentioned above as having psychoanalysts among their main characters, also feature a dream. Directed in 1926 by Georg Wilhelm Pabst, with psychoanalysts Karl Abraham and Hans Sachs as consultants, and aptly described as “a silent film about the talking cure” (Ries 1995), Secrets of a Soulis a detailed and respectful account of the fictional psychoanalytic case of a neurotic chemist: a man who becomes phobic of knives, pathologically jealous and sexually impotent when he hears that a young cousin of his wife’s is coming to visit them. His symptoms will be resolved by a psychoanalyst through the interpretation of a 10-minute-long dream (probably the longest dream sequence in the history of cinema), representing in a condensed and floridly symbolic form the various components of the protagonist’s inner world; these include keys, blades, phallic towers, the subject flying in the air and a doll being born from water. Having been asked to cooperate on this film, Freud wrote in a letter to Karl Abraham: “I do not believe that satisfactory plastic representation of our abstractions is at all possible”. Only a few months earlier, Freud had also declined Samuel Goldwyn’s substantial offer of $100,000 for a script on famous love stories.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) is memorable in particular for Salvador Dali’s surrealistic design of the oneiric sequence, represented with an architectural sharpness that contrasts with the more traditional blurred images of filmed dreams. Here, the interpretation of the patient’s dream as a way of unlocking a mystery which will pave the Royal Road to the final dramatic unfolding of the narrative justifies Hitchcock’s own description of Spellbound as “just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis” (in Truffaut 1983, p. 165). The function of dreams, at least in classical psychoanalysis, is to express in a distorted form not a repressed memory, but an unconscious wish. In Spellbound we have instead a decoding of the manifest dream content, based on the speculations made by two doctors rather than on the patient’s own free associations.

Finally, I shall mention the famous dream in the opening scene of one of the outstanding films in post-war European cinema: Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957). It is a compassionate portrait of an elderly man, Professor Isak Borg, coming to terms with the sorrows of an emotionally cold life. The night before embarking on a car journey to his old university where he is to receive a honorary degree, Borg has a disturbing dream. Its representation – which includes a clock without hands, the appearance of the character’s double, and his own corpse coming back to life – is one of the most effective filmic illustration of the psychological phenomenon described by Freud (1919) as das Unheimliche (the Uncanny). This dream, offering Borg a first opportunity to reflect upon his existence and the choices which had led to a life devoid of depth and meaning, will help him move from fear to acceptance of his mortality and thus towards a sort of late redemption.


The discourse on the complex relationship between cinema and psychoanalysis has in recent years become both broader and deeper and, as I have mentioned before, it no longer involves exclusively the application of concepts borrowed from analytic theory to film interpretation. What we have been witnessing is an extension of this field of enquiry towards a more complex process characterized by a new interdisciplinary emphasis, by a dialogue between cinema and psychoanalysis. In some cases, film scholars, filmmakers and mental health practitioners cooperate to achieve a deeper understanding of many aspects, both normal and pathological, of our internal world, subjectivity, sexual identity, social roles and interpersonal relationships, for an enrichment of both disciplines.

This dialogue has expanded in a range of different directions. Some authors have focused on the cocktail of realistic and fantastic elements, somewhere between documentary and narrative fiction, both in many films and in much analytic material, and have emphasized the creatively ambiguous role of memory and flashbacks as tools to recover the historical personal, as well as collective, past for the construction of present experiences.

Others have explored the structures underlying the production of meaning in films, a theme this one of special interest to such authors as Jean-Louis Baudry (1970) and Christian Metz (1974), whose highly abstract academic essays were influenced by the ideas of Jacques Lacan on the distinction between real, imaginary and symbolic orders, on the mirror stage of development, and on the dynamics of desire. A frequent criticism to their theories is that they tend to describe the desire in film audiences in negative terms, as originating from an absence, or lack (manque), of the objects signified on the screen.

Other psychoanalytically-oriented authors have studied specific aspects of filmmaking (screenplay, direction, mise en scène, camera-work) in the context of their analogy with conscious, preconscious and unconscious mental functioning. Film editing, in particular, lends itself to be discussed in terms of similar defensive mechanisms as those operating, for instance, in dream work and in symptom formation.

A fertile ground of research has also been that of the relationship, under the generic label of ‘spectatorship’, between cinema and its audience, for instance in connection with regressive elements (for some, the dark room of the movie theatre is 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 significantly enriched by feminist writings, in particular about the stereotyped representation and reproduction of traditional gender and family roles.

Another topic of interest to psychoanalysts 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, and relationships to, the different characters on the screen. Where would the spectator’s point of view then be placed? Metz (1974) believes that a viewer could only identify with the camera which has preceded him in the act of looking. Of course, we do know that what we are watching is ‘just’ a film, performed by actors, shot by a camera and projected on a screen, in the same way as we know, upon waking up, that what we have lived through in our sleep was ‘just’ a dream. And we do understand that the perception of seamless frame-to-frame movement, of three-dimensional images on a two-dimensional surface, of regressing in time in the flashback scenes, to mention just a few of the artifices of the cinema medium, is but an illusion. In reality, however, our experience as spectators is mostly a different one.

I would like to draw a parallel here with what happens in the psychodynamics of the developing child. At first, a baby’s primary form of relationship is his fusional identification with the mother: this we can compare with the spectator’s identification with the point of view of the camera which has given birth to the film in the first place. However, as the child grows older, and assuming the primary identification was with a good enough mother, he then gradually (though never entirely) begins to separate from her. This will allow the individual to learn to engage in the life-long process of getting involved in mature object relationships.

Analogously, we could suggest that movie spectators, while always potentially aware of the existence of a camera somewhere in the background of their viewing experience, grow out of it once they feel settled in their armchairs (sometimes with the help of a hot drink and a tub of popcorn…) and the light in the cinema goes down. They can then immerse themselves in the film’s narrative, feel held and contained by it, and let themselves be drawn into a complex play of identifications with, and relationships to, the different characters on the screen. In order to do this, though, our viewers must momentarily forget that they are watching ‘just’ a movie being shot by a camera, and disengage from their original identification with the camera’s point of view.

Occasionally spectators may be made conscious again of the existence of the camera. This will happen when they get drawn, as it were, ‘behind’ the film by a moviemaker’s deliberate self-reflective gesture, by the specific subject of the film (for instance, scoptophilia or filmmaking itself) or by the introduction of explicitly subjective shots. The authorial voice sometimes makes itself more audible through a deliberately emphatic use of certain filming techniques – say, an insistent use of a fixed or of a hand-held camera, circular movements around a room, close-ups on the eyes of a troubled character – and the audience could therefore be made more aware that there are moviemakers and their creative minds (as well as their tools) behind the film. In a similar way, regressive moves towards primary identifications are always possible also in well-adjusted, independent adults. But these should be considered as exceptions. The norm for the grown-up is to use the original identification with the good enough parent as a step towards forming relationships with others, much as the function of the camera is to offer the spectator an opportunity to move away from awareness of the apparatus that had produced the film and relate instead to what is projected on the screen.

It is also worth pointing out that, when sitting in a cinema, we do not find ourselves in the presence of a camera but of another machine that represents it: the projector. While it could be argued that a film’s very existence depends on the intercourse between the parental couple of camera and projector (without the former it couldn’t be made, without the latter it couldn’t be seen), in our viewing experience we mostly relate to this offspring by ignoring its parents.

Winnicott once quoted a patient saying that the painter Francis Bacon liked “to have glass over his pictures because then when people look at the picture what they see is not just a picture; they might in fact see themselves” (1967, p. 117). This detail seems to confirm the meaning of the screen on which the film gets projected as a magical, distorting mirror surface reflecting what we unconsciously wish to see in it.


Having now made reference to what I consider to be some of the main features of the complex and fascinating “elusive correspondence” between cinema and psychoanalyis, in the hope of having thus encouraged you to further engage in this creative dialogue,  I shall conclude my presentation with a quote by psychoanalyst Otto Rank:


“The uniqueness of cinematography in visibly portraying psychological events calls our attention, with exaggerated clarity, to the fact that the interesting and meaningful problems of man’s relation to himself – and the fateful disturbance of this relation – finds here an imaginative representation” (1914, p. 7).


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.

Baudry, J.-L. (1970) Ideological effects of the basic cinematographic apparatus. Film Quarterly 28 (2) (1974): 39-47.

Freud, S. (1900) The Interpretation of Dreams. SE 4 & 5. London: Hogarth Press.

Freud, S. (1919) The ‘Uncanny’. SE 17. London: Hogarth Press.

Gabbard, G. O. (1997) Guest Editorial: The psychoanalyst at the movies. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 78(3): 429-434.

Metz, C. (1974) The Imaginary Signifier. Psychoanalysis and the Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

Rank, O. (1914) The Double. A Psychoanalytic Study. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971.

Ries, P. (1995) Popularise and/or be damned: Psychoanalysis and film at the crossroads in 1925. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 76: 759-791.

Truffaut, F. (1985) (1983) Hitchcock. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.

Winnicott, D.W. (1967). Mirror role of mother and family in child development. In Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock, 1971.

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