Psychoanalysis, Film and Spectatorship

My essay for MDA3200 Film Theory class (tutor dr. Lara Thompson)

Psychoanalysis, Film and Spectatorship


Lumiere Brothers

Psychoanalysis and film were born around the same time and was brought to public on the same year! In 1895, Lumiere brothers screened the footage from their new “cinematograph”, which was the very first motion picture camera, as well as a film projector and a printer. On the same year, the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, in collaboration with Joseph Breuer published their very first book on explaining hysterical symptoms: ‘Studies on Hysteria’. Apart from these two grand fields, one being an industry and the other a study, they had a collective sense – exploring the Freud’s so called uncanny: the images on screen were both familiar and somehow strange, alive and yet lifeless, real but illusory.


Sigmund Freud





The two fields, despite their similarities, have moved on developing and exploring their own fields. As Freud wrote more about the mind, the unconscious and other theories, film has developed a sense of editing, time and space manipulation and other special techniques. It was not until 1920s and 1930s, when Surrealists, fascinated by Freud’s theory of dreams and the unconscious, turned to cinema and praised its potential to transgress the boundaries between dreams and reality. “Andre Breton, the founder of the movement, saw cinema as a way of entering the marvellous, that realm of love and liberation.” But surrealists were not only interested in the good, but also in the dark side of Freud’s Theories – death drive, the compulsion to repeat, the uncanny. It was films like Un Chien Andalou (Luis Bunuel, 1928, France)

Stills from Un Chien Andalou

that really reflected the merge of psychoanalysis and cinema. Later, expanding in other genres than surrealism, it was films throughout the history, like 1960s Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers and 2010s Christopher Nolan’s adventures that held strongly on Freudian studies. These, and more film examples, that reflect Freudian psychoanalysis, will be the analytical focus of this essay. Furthermore, this essay will explore how cinema itself became the subject of psychoanalysis and how it is connected to other film theories.




To understand psychoanalysis in film, one must first understand psychoanalysis itself. It is a densely complex field of study. As American Psychoanalytical Association describes it, psychoanalysis is a study (based on the idea that people are frequently motivated by unrecognized wishes and desires that originate in one’s unconscious) that provides multi-layered and multi-dimensional explanations that seeks to understand that complexity. Its father, Sigmund Freud, was the first of many to develop this field of study. He believed, that only ‘behind the official consciousness do we obtain a realistic picture of the influences that determine human behaviour.’ And the ‘behind of consciousness’ is the unconscious – small part of mind, that is inaccessible to the conscious mind – but that affects thoughts, behaviour and emotions.

After more than 100 years of psychoanalysis, Freud’s ideas became outdated, changed, proved wrong. “Many of the criticisms leveled against Freud are valid, and both his theories and techniques are continually being refined and improved upon.” Nevertheless, he was the man to redefine human understanding of itself and how one thinks. And even to this day, some of his ideas has prolonged and is continued to be used. Throughout history, some of the theories that have been brought to cinema, can be listed as voyeurism – deriving sexual gratification from observing others in secret; oedipus complex – sexual attraction to the parent of the opposite sex; repression – excluding an impulse or a feeling from consciousness; and so forth. One of the most significant works of Freud was his 1899 book the Interpretation of Dreams, which in fact introduced the unconscious and talked about dream symbolism and how it reflects on human psyche. The whole body of work of Sigmund Freud has been used in cinema to reflect story, the deeper meaning behind it, as plot devices, character characteristics to define actions and reasons, and understand film itself. This leads to an exploration of different psychoanalytical theories in different films throughout the spectre of time and genre.

Psychoanalysis in film

One of the first filmmakers to interpret psychoanalysis in mainstream Hollywood cinema was Alfred Hitchcock. His, probably most famous motion picture of all time, Psycho (1960), is a film full of underlying themes of psychoanalysis, but the most apparent one is his use of Oedipus Complex. The main antihero (Norman Bates) is possessed by his own sexual obsession with his mother. The mother herself became a secondary personality in Norman’s mind, allowing the Oedipus complex work both ways – just like the mother kills the newly introduced woman in Norman’s present life, Norman, when young, has killed the mother’s boyfriend and out of guilt, the mother herself. Not only the film reflects oedipal psychoanalysis, but it also in sense talks about how events of childhood can affect a human’s psyche. This idea of childhood trauma affecting one’s later stages of life is also reflective in one of the following Hitchcock’s films – Marnie (1964). Identical parallel ideas can be drawn between the movie and studies on Hysteria. Both explore the childhood/earlier life traumas and how the past, buried in the unconscious, reveals itself in emotional or hysterical ways, especially after being triggered through an external stimuli. In the case of Marnie, it is the color red and thunderstorms that unconsciously remind the protagonist Marnie about an attempted sexual abuse when she was a child, leading her to hysterical attacks. The repression of unconscious becomes flexible when in confrontation with unconscious-memory-triggering external stimuli. Another example of loss of repression is visible in a much more recent motion picture – Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010). The movie itself is a study of dreams, which to Freud was, as he famously described, “the royal road to the unconscious”. Colin McGinn writes about the connection between dreams, cinema and psychoanalysis in his work Inception: Film, Dreams and Freud, where he praises that “Inception is at its core the symbolic rendering of the psychoanalytic process through the representation of the dream world, which in a manifest form, functions as the narrative of the text and is the very architecture and location of the world(s) Nolan creates.” But coming back to one of more subtle psychoanalytical ideas of the movie is the loss of repression. When Cobb and Ariadne visit Cobb’s dream, Ariadne is learning to construct architecture for his subconscious, and instead of creating new places, she recreates an actual location, a bridge, that Cobb knows which then triggers his memory from the unconscious of lost love Mal, that brings her to Cobb’s subconscious interrupting the dream and creating a hysteria. Cobb, as any other human being, has no ability of controlling his unconscious.

But what if the unconscious manifest themselves without the subject’s knowledge and expresses its libidinal desires? David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) explores this idea on release of libidinal energy, by partaking in the fight club, which meant “escape from a passive, capitalist, heteronormative existence into a life of release and unrestricted desire, both sexual and violent.” With the same ideology of libidinal forces dominating an individual’s life also strongly reflects in Steve McQueen’s 2011 film Shame. A movie about sexual addiction and it’s horrifying effects on protagonists family and social life. What “Shame” also looks into, is that sexual addiction manifests itself not only through sexual intercourse, but also masturbation, pornography and scopophilia. And scopophilia is used a lot in the language of film – apart from being a description of cinema itself, the most direct treatment of scopophilia, or in other words voyeurism, is in Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954). A film where the protagonist observe a story unfold through a window without personal interaction within that story. Not only that it reflects on what is cinema itself, but it also pleases the hidden unconscious desire of human psyche to receive gratification through watching and gazing.

These are a few of the many ideologies of use of psychoanalysis in film, and this essay only pointed at more apparent theories within those films. Although, as one would look into, it becomes much more obvious that they are intertwined and connected through a complicated web of psychoanalytical ideologies and most of the ideas appear in all of the films, on a higher or lower level of presence. When one understands psychoanalytical manifestation in all films, or the whole of cinema, the question that begs – why is there psychoanalysis in film?

Psychoanalysis of film

To understand the study of psyche so present in cinema, one must compare it to the psyche of cinema’s viewer and the relationship between screen and spectator. This relationship began to be studied in 1970s, the first time film became the subject of psychoanalytical study (as opposed to general – human mind, solely, being the subject) and influenced theorists to examine film’s, or as they saw it, cinema’s as an institution’s or an apparatus’s role in spectator’s mind. As Metz described it, ‘the cinematic institution is not just the cinema industry, it is also the mental machinery – another industry – which spectators “accustomed to the cinema” have internalized historically and which has adapted them to the consumption of films’. It is this historical accustomization, which in turns affects and defines cultures, perspectives, political views, psychological and scientific ideologies, that interested psychoanalysts to study cinema as an ‘apparatus’.

Jean-Louis Baudry

Most major works on post-1970s psychoanalysis was formulated by Jean-Louis Baudry, earlier mentioned Christian Metz and Laura Mulvey.

Christian Metz

Baudry and Metz’s apparatus theory argues that cinema (as the camera (the eye), projector, dark room and a 2 dimensional plain – screen) maintains the dominant ideology of the culture within the viewer. The theorists wrote, that ‘the cinema is ideological in that it creates an ideal, transcendental viewing subject’, to which the viewer identifies with through the ‘mirror stage’.

Jacquis Lacan

Mirror stage, as coined by 1970s psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan, is a theory of subjectivity – a period when an infant sixteen – eighteen months old sees himself for the first time in the mirror and recognizes its own likeness and is amused by its own image. But rather than identifying himself with the real self, the child projects an imaginary, greater other image on his own likeness. He understands himself, learns the ‘self’, but yet still in an unconscious ‘other’ version. It is this subjective identification that transports to the cinema as a sense of transcendence – the spectator identifies himself with the greater, larger than life, idealized character on screen.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

Baudry in his apparatus theory draws parallels between Plato’s cave and the cinematic apparatus. In both, the viewer is in a state of ‘immobility’, ‘locked’ on the screen. Just like the prisoners in the allegory,  the spectator mistakens the shadows on the wall (or a film) for the real thing. It is this psychic unity that obliterates the boundaries between the fake and real, the subject and object. Therefore, this unifying identification with the fake being real, and being ‘greater than life’, is how the cinema draws the viewer into itself. This possibility of living through a more ideal life, created by the cinema (than the real life, which the audience abandon outside the cinema) that compels the viewer to see movies and allow themselves to be emerged in it.

From this unconscious desire of cinema viewing, one can figure why the cinema idealizes and explores psychoanalysis in the first place. The imaginary world, that cinema creates, speaks directly to the audience’s subconscious, as the self-controlling consciousness is left aside. The film takes the viewer on a dream-like journey(which also, for the viewer, brings back the feeling of childhood, when imagination was roaming free), but must contain itself within the boundaries of psychoanalytical theories of unconscious fears, needs and desires to maintain that unity and identification.

Psychoanalysis and other film theories

Psychoanalysis and cinema has a great deal in common – not only that cinema drew from psychoanalysis, it has influenced a field of its own – psychoanalytic film theory. What is more interesting, is that psychoanalysis developed, influenced, or somewhat reflect some other film theories, for example: Freud’s perspective on females became a controversy, developing Feminist theory, and since psychoanalysis was transported to cinema, Feminist film theory has emerged; Realism can also be a psychoanalytical discussion upon films reflectivity of reality as opposed to fictional cinema; Auteur theory can be described as psychoanalytical study of a filmmaker as opposed to a film.


When developing and exploring the possibilities of film, surrealists found that cinema is possible of visually expressing the studies of psychoanalysis. As they adapted the Freudian theories to film, they’ve started an irreversible merge of the two that has grew throughout a century and continues to grow. As film explored psychoanalysis, for almost 50 years psychoanalysis has explored film. It is the auxiliary theory of cinema and other cinema’s theories. And as the psychoanalytical studies grows, so will film.


Bibliography (2016). About Psychoanalysis. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Apr. 2016].

Baudry, J. (1974). Ideological effects of the basic cinematographic apparatus.

Breuer, J. and Freud, S. (1957). Studies on hysteria. New York: Basic Books.

Calvert, L. (2011). Inception: Film, Dreams and Freud. Fragmentary Narratives, 15(5).

Creed, B. (1998). Film and psychoanalysis. Oxford University Press. 1 (1), p2.

Freud, S. and Freud, A. (2005). The essentials of psycho-analysis. London: Vintage, p.77.

Kahn, M. (2002). Basic Freud. New York: Basic Books, p.1.

Kahn, M. (2002). Basic Freud. New York: Basic Books, p.123.

Metz, C. (1982). The imaginary signifier. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p.7.

Norton, B. (2015). 15 Mind-Blowing Films Influenced by Psychoanalysis. [online] Taste Of Cinema – Movie Reviews and Classic Movie Lists. Available at: [Accessed 29 Apr. 2016].

the Guardian. (2001). The influence of Freud on the movies. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Apr. 2016].

Žižek, S. (1992). Everything you always wanted to know about Lacan (but were afraid to ask to Hitchcock). London: Verso.


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