Psychoanalysis and cinema were born around the same time – the 19th century. They share a common historical, social and cultural background shaped by forces of modernity. Theorists have often explored how psychoanalysis works, with its emphasis on the importance of desire in the life of an individual, has influenced cinema, However, the reverse is also true. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, drew on cinematic terms to describe his theories as in ‘screen memories’, but a number of the key ideas were developed in visual terms – particularly the theory of castration.
Many of his theories have been used in film: the unconscious, the return of the repressed, Oedipal drama, narcissism, castration, and hysteria. Possibly the most crucial of his contributions were his accounts of the subconscious, subjectivity and sexuality.
To commemorate Freud’s 160th birth anniversary, let us take a look at four films that are based on his Psychoanalytic theories :
This Darren Aronofsky film is about the internal struggle of a girl, Nina, who has a dream that she is the white swan in the new production of Swan Lake. Although she is perfect for it, the production requires her to play the black swan as well. Nina’s unconscious mind conveys to the viewers about her desire to become a ballerina. She also displays Desire of the Mother. We see her relying heavily on her mother (by pleasing her) through most of the film and her mother relying on her in turn (by helping her succeed).
In Psycho, Hitchcock’s classic foray into dementia, Marion (Janet Leigh) absconds with company funds and flees in panic. Her secret lover (John Gavin) sets out to find her. As he traces her to a hotel owned by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), obsession and murders begin to unravel. Norman’s split psyche also houses the identity of his jealous mother, the queen of all castrating mothers. She dominates her son’s personality even after death. This character merged easily with the vulgar Freudianism of the late 50s, when mothers were suddenly found to be the root of all evil.
The Piano Teacher
Michael Haneke’s adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s novel portrays the relationship between repression, displacement, and violence in Freudian psychoanalysis. Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), is a piano teacher who lives with her mother. Her life takes a drastic turn when she falls for a brilliant student, Walter, whom she tries to keep out of school to prevent from being tempted. She resorts to sabotage after a failed attempt of keeping Anna (a female student she perceives to be a sexual threat in her enigmatic pursuit of Walter) away from him. Through her letter to Walter confessing her masochistic desires, the film emphasizes the difficulty of feminine transition to Oedipal sexuality.
A Dangerous Method
A Dangerous Method stars Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud and Michael Fassbinder as Carl Jung. It is a historical drama about Jung coming to terms with the professional differences between the two in a relationship bound with Oedipal undertones. Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a hysterical patient admitted to Jung’s clinic, eventually becomes his love interest and also a colleague. Jung uses his ‘talking cure’ to help Sabina learn the genesis of her hysteria. We also learn [Spoiler Alert] that her father abused her throughout her childhood. What proves even more disturbing, however, was her response to the sexual arousal and gratification and the abusive events.
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