Freud: A Star Is Born

By Elena Comay del JuncoMay 26, 2020

Freud: A Star Is Born
So say whatever goes through your mind. Act as though, for instance, you were a traveller sitting next to the window of a railway carriage and describing to someone inside the carriage the changing views which you see outside. Finally, never forget that you have promised to be absolutely honest, and never leave anything out because, for some reason or other, it is unpleasant to tell it.

— Freud, “On Beginning the Treatment”



IF A SINGLE FILM SEQUENCE captures the stock image of the psychoanalyst, it is Helena Bonham Carter, done up as an aging society doyenne, arriving at her analyst’s office in full regalia: oversized sunglasses, crimson lipstick, pearls, silk blouse, crocodile purse, and, most importantly of all, lavender fur coat. The analyst, played by Ben Kingsley, is the image of respectability: three-piece pinstripe suit, navy tie, goatee. But it is the office that truly sets the tone: maroon leather padding on the door, figurines on the desk, Oriental carpet on the floor and slung across the daybed-style couch.

The film, directed by Roman Polanski, is a 2012 ad for Prada, who made the lavender fur, the three-piece suit, and all the rest of the stylish clothing. In its three-and-a-half-minute span, the commercial encapsulates the central themes and contradictions of the near-century-long tradition of psychoanalysis onscreen. Despite its dramatic marginalization as a mainstream social practice, Freudian therapy has maintained a constant cinematic presence. The tropes deployed in the Prada ad — serious therapist, backward facing couch, carpets, sexual tension, opposite sex pairings — are recognizable even to those with no firsthand exposure to psychoanalysis.

I also cannot think of a better depiction of countertransference. As Carter goes into a cliché-ridden spiel about her father, Kingsley’s attention wanders away from the patient and toward her coat hanging from a hook by the door. He becomes transfixed to the point that he walks over and, as Carter rattles on unawares, tries it on himself. The analyst does not simply make a move on the patient but displaces the eroticism inherent in analytic situations onto a fetish object in the most strictly Freudian sense. We cannot help but see Kingsley luxuriating in the smell and softness of the fur as engaging in some kind of perverse sexual pleasure.

Though the Prada ad is a psychoanalytic film, it also belongs to the quite distinct category of films about psychoanalysis. There are films that are both — that depict the analytic situation and are clearly informed by the tenets of psychoanalysis — as well as films which do not portray analysis in any detail, but which nonetheless more or less consciously deploy psychoanalytic thinking. And at the discursive level, it is not a stretch to say that psychoanalysis has been the dominant model of interpretation for at least as long as “film studies” has existed as distinct discipline.

But the majority of movies that actually depict psychoanalysts and their patients are not examples of “serious” cinema and do not reflect, for the most part, a particularly good grasp of psychoanalysis. If we want to learn about psychoanalysis from the movies, we also have to look at its appearance in the movies less likely to be the objects of academic study. Or, rather than using psychoanalysis to understand films, we insist on the importance of movies to understanding the cultural history — and actuality — of psychoanalysis. (For those not convinced that such understanding is important: watch and see.)


Since we are now interested in “bad” movies, there is no better place to start than the present: this past March, Netflix released the first season of its first Austrian production, Freud (2020). Like several of the other biographical treatments of Freud and his associates, the series focuses on the early part of his life. Freud is a young doctor, recently returned to Vienna from studies with Jean-Martin Charcot in Paris and working as a resident under the neurologist Theodor Meynert alongside the older doctor Josef Breuer.

So far, so accurate. Indeed, the second episode of the Netflix show recreates, nearly shot-for-shot, the opening sequence of John Huston’s Freud: The Secret Passion (1962), in which Montgomery Clift played Freud and which is easily the best filmed version of Freud’s life. (The script was written by Sartre, who demanded his name be taken off the movie after his 800-page manuscript was cut down by three-quarters.) Freud fights with his supervisor Meynert, a strict materialist, over a hysterical woman whom the older doctor accuses of malingering. In order to prove her paralytic symptoms are genuine — if of non-organic origin — Freud pierces a needle through the hysterical woman’s calf. The woman’s lack of reaction proves she isn’t faking it, and the viewer gets a show of the young Freud’s bravado. The confrontation between an orthodox senior physician and young innovator is of course the stuff of hospital soaps from ER and General Hospital to Grey’s Anatomy. Within the space of a couple minutes, the sequence lays out the fundamental divide between treating the mind as just an effect of the body and treating it on its own terms, thus setting up Freud’s later “discovery” of the talking cure and the journey the series will inevitably follow.

Like Huston’s Freud, the Netflix Freud shows the young doctor initially formulating the notion of the unconscious through hypnosis, a technique learned from Charcot. By creating hypnoid states in patients, the hypnotist makes them give voice to mental content otherwise unavailable in waking life. This is also accurate. The turning point of Huston’s Freud is the inadvertent discovery that hypnosis is not necessary. The beautiful and troubled young patient, loosely based on Anna O., whom Freud is treating (Marilyn Monroe was offered the part; her analyst advised her to take it down), can uncover repressed memories by stringing together whatever comes into her mind when gently guided by the doctor. But Netflix’s Freud never wants to abandon hypnosis, using it to do battle against a pair of wicked Hungarian aristocrats, the Szapárys, who themselves are using hypnosis-like occult powers to bring down the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the name of national liberation. Hosting fashionable séances in their suburban palace, the Szapárys’ secret weapon is their beautiful young ward, Fleur Salomé, who is blessed/cursed with “taltós,” a sort of hypercharged ability at hypnotism, only vaguely related to the figure of the same name found in Magyar mythology. The couple sets a crew of young, hypnotized aristocrats on the Kaiser at a ball, and Freud, high on cocaine, leads a liberated Fleur and a hardboiled Viennese detective in saving the day for God and Empire. (Freud and Fleur, of course, also sleep together somewhere along the way.)

So much for the plot. The show tells us little about Freud the man or about psychoanalysis as a discipline. But it does provide a measure of how entrenched the image of the analyst as well as certain vulgarized analytic tropes have become. The series is full of what might be called, for lack of a better term, inside jokes, visual cues that will provide satisfaction to a viewer minimally acquainted with even the slightest received idea of Freud and psychoanalysis. Though this Freud never arrives at the classic couch-and-chair setup, there is a daybed, covered in an Oriental carpet, with a small armchair tucked behind it. Freud’s desk is covered in antique figurines. Freud is constantly taking cocaine (a piece of trivia reasonably well known, but not often depicted). And on the more conceptual side of things, there is a sequence of autohypnosis in which Freud strangles his father and (literally) fucks his mother. But nothing is said of Oedipus, just as nothing needs to be said about the couch, the statuettes, the coke. These are all things the audience is already meant to know, though not necessarily because they have read Freud or are familiar with the details of psychoanalytic theory. Rather, sofas, cocaine, antiquities, and mother-son incest have all, to varying degrees no doubt, attained a degree of autonomy from their original context.

This provides a preliminary answer to the following question: if the creators of the Netflix show weren’t interested in depicting the man’s ideas, why make a show about Freud? (More than one reviewer has compared the show to Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.) In brief, the last 120 years of psychoanalysis have provided such a rich assortment of tropes and such a powerful visual language as to tempt any filmmaker. Psychoanalysis is not only an object, something that movies are about, but also a vehicle for meaning beyond itself, an idiom for telling a particular kind of story. The types of story that movies about psychoanalysis tell, though, aren’t arbitrary. Rather cinematic representations of Freud and his followers tend to fall into three overlapping categories: histories, thrillers, and comedies — our modern version, perhaps, of the classical division of theater into history, tragedies, and comedies.


Most of the historical movies about psychoanalysis tend toward the melodrama, focusing on the early stages of Freud and his associates’ careers. Huston’s aforementioned Freud is the originator of this genre, while David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011) is its most recent high-profile avatar. There is also a recent slew of lesser known and similarly uneven productions, including When Nietzsche Wept (2007), narrating a fictionalized encounter between the philosopher and Josef Breuer, and Lou Andreas-Salomé: The Audacity to be Free (2016), casting the titular analyst as a sort of feminist heroine. For the most part, these are the highest quality films by the usual standards and the least interesting for our purposes.

Thrillers and comedies may hold less prestige but are in general more interesting for seeing what has become of Freud in particular and psychoanalysis generally in the movies. Among thrillers, Netflix’s Freud is not the first to depict the psychoanalyst as a crime-solving detective (although perhaps the first to cast Freud himself in that role). In Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), Ingrid Bergman plays a young analyst who uses her skills of interpretation to exonerate a colleague (Gregory Peck) suspected of murder. One of Spellbound’s writers, Ben Hecht, also worked on Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool (1949), in which an analyst also doubles as detective — in this case to save his wife from the grasp of a scheming hypnotist.

Final Analysis (1992), directed by Phil Joanou, is another good example of the analyst-as-detective. Set in San Francisco, it features Richard Gere as a handsome young analyst, Isaac Barr, treating a shell-shocked young woman Diana (Uma Thurman) whose older sister Heather (Kim Basinger) is married to a mob boss. The two sisters engage in a plot to frame Barr for the murder of Heather’s husband. The film climaxes with Isaac uncovering the plot and pushing Heather off a lighthouse. The doubled women, San Francisco setting, and death-by-defenestration place Final Analysis squarely in the shadow of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). But whereas Vertigo was a properly psychoanalytic film (in addition to its short scene featuring James Stewart’s analyst), Final Analysis is not. Rather, like Netflix’s Freud, it uses the psychoanalytic tropes to present what appears to be an essentially conventional erotic thriller. But making the central detective a psychoanalyst has the advantage of placing sex at the center of things: if there is a single received idea of psychoanalytic thinking, it is that everything comes down to sex.

Though “erotic thrillers” have clear antecedents, especially in the noir trope of the femme fatale, they emerged clearly as a genre in the 1980s. Even those erotic thrillers that do not explicitly feature psychoanalysts often deploy, probably without meaning to do so, psychoanalytic patterns of thinking. Of particular note is the prevalence on doubles, especially of lookalike women — a pairs of sisters in Final Analysis, and mistress and wife in Fatal Attraction (1987), both of which are indebted to Kim Novak’s twin performances in Vertigo, et cetera. In François Ozon’s Double Lover (2017), the doubling concerns a psychoanalyst himself and his alter ego. Doubling was, of course, identified by Freud in his 1919 essay as a key trigger for feelings of the uncanny, following Otto Rank. I do not mean to suggest that Joanou or Ozon — as opposed to Hitchcock — intentionally or even unconsciously attempted to depict Freudian themes. The presence of psychoanalytic tropes is not indicative of the fact that a director or writer has given serious thought to psychoanalysis. Instead, it is better thought of as a kind of shorthand, telling the audience something like: “Pay attention, this is a psychological thriller.”

In fact, the first film about psychoanalysis, G. W. Pabst’s Secrets of a Soul (1926) was a thriller. Secrets was written by the Berlin psychoanalyst Karl Abraham, after Freud declined UFA’s offer. Freud professed distaste for the movies his whole life, and the production of Secrets revealed a split between the more liberal Berlin analysts, including Abraham, and those in Vienna more firmly under Freud’s control. The film tells the story of a bourgeois academic who becomes incapable of touching a knife after a murder occurs next door. Despairing at his mental breakdown, he visits a cutting-edge doctor who talks him out of his perilous mental state.

Secrets is not just a movie about psychoanalysis; it is also a psychoanalytic film. But with this in mind, the distinction between a psychoanalytic film and a film about psychoanalysis may be clearer. The former is one that incorporates psychoanalysis into its formal and narrative structures. The latter uses psychoanalysis as a cue that we ought to give the film a “psychoanalytic” (or at least “psychological”) interpretation that may or may not be natural to it, a way of showing us that the real drama is the one going on inside the characters’ heads. This means, of course, that there can be psychoanalytic movies that are also about psychoanalysis. This is the kind of film that Huston’s Freud or Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method wants to be and which Secrets in fact is. But for cultural-historical purposes, non-psychoanalytic films that are nonetheless about psychoanalysis are equally important.


The increasing prevalence of this latter kind of movie about psychoanalysis, perhaps unsurprisingly, parallels the declining fortunes of psychoanalysis as a practice in the United States and, to some extent, Europe since its highpoint at the mid-20th century. It is particularly interesting to see the emergence of comedies involving analysts starting in the 1960s — that is, just at the moment psychoanalysis was losing its grip as the dominant modality in psychiatry and psychology.

For something to be the subject of a mass-market comedy, it needs to be recognizable to enough people to be funny and also safe enough to criticize. A dominant power in decline is thus the perfect target. (Consider the prevalence of anti-clerical and anti-royalist satire in the 18th century.) More particularly, once a profession becomes codified, with its own recognizable idiosyncrasies — once it becomes a genre — it becomes the object of humor. But psychoanalysts seem to be in a league of their own, perhaps as a result of the overwhelming seriousness with which the enterprise is presented — the commitment demanded of the patients, the stereotypically impassive and silent analyst. This is not unique to analysts: any institution that is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to have acquired a complex set of rituals provides the occasion for satire.

Thus, since the 1960s, there has been a proliferation of comedies about analysis that fall into more or less every comedic genre, starting with The President’s Analyst (1967), a slapstick farce about a New York analyst drafted to provide some relief to the stressed-out president, but who ends up revealing state secrets — meaning the titular character is now a target for Soviet spies. The basic idea that it’s funny to see analysts in places they don’t belong is what drives the mini-trend from around the turn of the millennium of mob-comedies — in which wise guys break omertà in order to go to therapy. Most obvious are Analyze This (1999) and Analyze That (2002). But even if the relationship between Tony and Dr. Melfi in The Sopranos (1999–2007) goes far beyond comedy, it too is rooted in a sense of the incongruity of a mafioso going to a shrink.

The centrality of sexuality to psychoanalysis and the perception, accurate even if vulgarized, that everything is really about sex is perhaps even greater fodder for comedy. (This is also why there are psychoanalysts in so many of Woody Allen’s movies.) Beyond Therapy (1987), by Robert Altman, involves two patients who are, in effect, set up by their respective shrinks. Prime (2005) is about a patient who finds out she’s been dating her analyst’s son only after revealing — like a good patient — all the details of their sex life.

On the surface, none of these movies display any clear grasp of psychoanalytic concepts. But each reveal crucial information about psychoanalytic practice. Comedies premised on incongruity between patient and analyst portray the difficulty of achieving a real relationship between the two parties and the persistent fragility of that relationship once it has been established. A therapeutic relationship that seems to be developing well risks being thrown completely off balance by events out of both parties’ control, to say nothing of mishandled transference and countertransference.

But comedies about analysis have another insight about technique, one that stems from the figure of the self-serious analyst himself. Why are psychoanalysts so funny? It is not just that, as I suggested, they have a byzantine set of rules. The true reason why they are such ripe objects for comedic send-up lies in their authority. To proceed by comparison, a psychoanalyst is a clearer object of comedy than any old doctor, just as judges are funnier than lawyers. There is also some resemblance between why psychoanalysts seem to be funny and why priests are funny. In the case of the analyst, it is a particular authority of knowledge that makes him a target in comedy, just as it makes him an exemplary detective in the thrillers. Freud himself identified humor as a means of protecting oneself in his 1927 follow-up to his earlier treatment of jokes — “It means: ‘Look! Here is the world, which seems so dangerous! It is nothing but a game for children; just worth making a jest about.’” To depict a psychoanalyst as funny is to say, “You pretend to know the secrets of my soul, but really you’re just a ridiculous old man.”

But authority on its own is not funny: it need be accompanied by rigidity, formality, overzealousness, pompousness. It is of course true that analysis is predicated on a certain distance between the two parties and a degree of unknowability or anonymity on the analyst’s part that mirrors the absolute honesty of the patients, but the traits that make a cinematic analyst funny are not ones that make one a good analyst.

This is especially true of A Couch in New York (1996), Chantal Akerman’s uncharacteristically light and glossy romantic comedy, in which a scattered Parisian dancer Béatrice (Juliette Binoche) does a holiday apartment swap with an uptight Upper East Side analyst Henry (William Hurt). Henry’s character has forgotten to announce his vacation, and his patients start arriving at his door assuming Béatrice is his replacement. She goes along, bewildered, and turns out to be a far better analyst than Henry. Instead of rigidly curling up in the doctor’s chair, Béatrice sits cross legged; she gasps when a patient reveals surprising new information; she gives advice; she pushes back. In other words, she does everything that an analyst is not supposed to do.

That sentence, though, needs to be revised: she does everything that an analyst is not supposed to do according to a received notion of how an analyst ought to behave. But Akerman makes sure that Béatrice is never shown making friends with the patients, and we never see her tell them what to do, never hear her passing judgment. She may lack the technical refinement of a trained analyst, but her therapeutic instincts are entirely psychoanalytic. A Couch provides a brilliant lesson about analytic technique within the perfectly matched generic framework of a romcom, as if to say: “Lighten up! Don’t abandon the basic methods but recognize that the fetishistic obsession with following a strictly regimented set of rules is not helping. And besides, it’s making you into a joke.”

We have already seen that the emergence of comedies about analysts coincided approximately with the decline of psychoanalysis’s fortunes as a master discipline. Romantic comedies are, of course, no replacement for the hard work of analysis. Nor are devotees of Freud likely to find the proliferation of movies about psychoanalysis a counterweight to the discipline's displacement from American psychiatry and clinical psychology. Yet these films are a testament not only to the dissemination of more or less vulgarized psychoanalytic tropes. They are, intentionally or not, an argument for psychoanalysis itself.


Elena Comay del Junco is an academic and writer.

LARB Contributor

Elena Comay del Junco is a writer and academic.


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