In the new American art film The Mountain, which I considered at length in the current issue of the Reader, director Rick Alverson looks back on the final days of the lobotomy as an accepted psychotherapeutic practice. The movie follows the exploits of a traveling therapist (Jeff Goldblum) who visits state hospitals and performs the procedure on mental patients with the goal of bringing them to an “innocuous state.” Though he trades in incapacitation and seems to enjoy his work, Goldblum’s character isn’t evil per se; Alverson seems to be saying that the therapist merely follows the order of the day and that this allows him to see himself as rational, even humane. It’s a reminder of how the sciences (social and otherwise) are always evolving—what may seem the paragon of compassion in one era can seem barbaric one or two generations later.
Cinema and psychotherapy are roughly the same age, and the former has found endless inspiration in the evolution of the latter. Mental hospitals have long inspired dread in the movies, from the German expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Steven Soderbergh’s recent Unsane, though one can find optimistic portraits of these institutions as well. My favorite remains Vincente Minnelli’s The Cobweb, which depicts a progressive hospital where the doctors genuinely care about their patients and encourage not only their rehabilitation but their creative expression as well. Plenty of movies have mined the process of psychoanalysis for intense, intimate drama, both optimistic (Ordinary People) and pessimistic (Ingmar Bergman’s From the Life of the Marionettes). The critic Armond White once noted that actors love performing scenes of psychoanalysis because it allows them to articulate what their characters think and feel—in other words, it lets them make explicit the foundational work they do for any performance.
Below are five capsule reviews from the Reader archives of movies in which psychotherapy factors crucially in the content. Had I wanted to expand my consideration of cinematic psychological studies, I could have included any number of American genre films of the 1940s and ’50s that drew upon Freudian theory when it was at the height of its popularity. (Local programmer Michael Metzger did a nice job of addressing this phenomenon with the series of “Freudian Westerns” he organized for Doc Films earlier this year.) I also could have included biopics of famous psychologists, such as John Huston’s Freud or David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. Still, the films considered below represent a perfectly good place to start in a study of the intersection of cinematic art and psychotherapeutic theory.
Spellbound The gaudy Freudianism of this 1945 Hitchcock film, backed by a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dalí and an overexcited score by Miklós Rósza, can make it hard to take, but beneath the facile trappings there is an intriguing Hitchcockian study of role reversal, with doctors and patients, men and women, mothers and sons inverting their assigned relationships with compelling, subversive results. Gregory Peck’s taciturn performance as the amnesiac hero is a problem, though you can see the qualities in Peck that intrigued his director (both here and in The Paradine Case): his monumental self-control, self-consciousness, and basic insecurity. His performance is a dry run for Tippi Hedren’s remarkable work in Marnie. With Ingrid Bergman, ironically employed as an icon of glowing health, and Leo G. Carroll. —Dave Kehr
The Cobweb Vincente Minnelli’s 1955 melodrama is set in a posh mental hospital; he choreographs the various plots and subplots with the same style and dynamism he brought to his famous musicals. Charles Boyer is the head of the clinic, a secret alcoholic worried about competition from hotshot young shrink Richard Widmark. Widmark, in turn, is caught in a triangle with his childish wife (Gloria Grahame) and an understanding colleague (Lauren Bacall). Among the guest loonies are Oscar Levant (who sings “Mother” in a straitjacket), Lillian Gish, Susan Strasberg, Fay Wray, John Kerr, Paul Stewart, and Adele Jergens; John Houseman produced. —Dave Kehr
Monster in a Box Performance artist Spalding Gray’s follow-up to his 1987 Swimming to Cambodia is easy and entertaining to watch, but has less thematic focus and directorial polish than its predecessor; Nick Broomfield directs this time, and though he’s resourceful, his resources clearly don’t match those of Jonathan Demme. Perhaps the overall sprawl of the material is partly to blame; the title refers to an 1,800-page novel Gray has been writing, which we see on the table in front of him, and most of the monologue is about professional activities that took Gray away from his work on it. Much of this qualifies as engaging but fairly lightweight sit-down comedy, capped by a stand-up routine in which Gray describes his experience playing the Stage Manager in a production of Our Town, complete with the negative reviews he got in the New York papers. Liberal guilt is once again a principal theme, and Gray’s approach to the subject is more playful than polemical—which means that we wind up feeling tweaked and tickled more often than challenged or enlightened. But his powers as a writer and performer certainly hold one’s attention. Incidentally, more than five dozen names appear in the credits of this one-man show, including Laurie Anderson (for the music) and Skip Lievsay (for the sound effects). —Jonathan Rosenbaum
The Son’s Room Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, this 2001 feature is something of a departure for Nanni Moretti, who’s known for his semiautobiographical, highly political comedies about daily life in modern Italy. The Son’s Room is purely fictional, starring Moretti as a psychiatrist with a satisfying, comfortable bourgeois life—the kind of life Moretti might have mocked in his earliest films. The doctor has a full practice and a good relationship with his wife (the radiant Laura Morante), a publisher of art books, and their two well-adjusted teenagers, all living in a sunlit apartment by the sea. Then a sudden accident reconfigures everything that has been so lovingly, carefully put together. With tender skill, Moretti illuminates Samuel Beckett’s familiar summation “I can’t go on—I’ll go on.” —Meredith Brody
Kings and Queen There’s something about the goofy sprawl of French writer-director Arnaud Desplechin—his obscure uses of “Moon River” and Greek mythology—that irks me even when he’s being brilliant. But this powerhouse 2004 movie lingers, and maybe, like his characters, Desplechin needs his eccentricities. Costarring two of his favorite actor-creatures, Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric, as a single mother and her deranged ex-husband, this melodrama follows their narratives separately (she learns her father is dying; he gets committed to a sanitarium) before allowing them to commingle. It adds up to more than the sum of its parts, but you may not realize it for a day or so. With Catherine Deneuve. —Jonathan Rosenbaum v