Rose Garnett at Film Four talks with us about the portrayal of psychotherapy in film

A short interview on the depiction of psychoanalysis in films with Rose Garnett, Head of Editorial at Film Four
Kira Jolliffe chats with Rose about the difficult historical relationship between film and psychotherapy
Freud - Clift

Montgomery Clift in Freud: The Secret Passion, (1962)

“The Lumiere Brothers were inventing the moving image at the same time as Freud was developing his theories,” says Rose Garnett, who in her role at Film Four identifies and nurtures emerging British film talent. “Psychoanalysis and movies have grown up together.”

The relationship between psychoanalysis and film is long and complicated, both in how psychoanalysis is depicted and used in film.

Sigmund Freud refused invitations from Hollywood to write screenplays and fell out with his colleague Karl Abrahams, concerned that popularising psychoanalytic theory would water it down. After countless portrayals of psychotherapy in film over the last century, one wonders if he’d feel differently.

“The problem with psychoanalysis in films is that (in reality) it’s often about a long-term relationship; about a person in such an abstract way that it’s difficult to find a place for it in drama…” explains Garnett.

“Films about psychotherapy tend to be boring and indulgent. Of course, there are a few honorable exceptions; shrinks in films are often depicted as a threat, or as ridiculous and comedic [see High AnxietyAnalyze This, and several Woody Allen’s films], or used as an expositional device.”

judd hirsch

Judd Hirsch in ‘Ordinary People’ (1980)

But what about television? Garnett argues “It can work, because a TV series can better reflect a slowly developing and often highly internalised relationship.” It’s hard to disagree; the last 15 years have welcomed nuanced portrayals of therapy in HBO’s The Sopranos and In Treatment.

“However, it’s through Hitchcock’s more indirect use of analysis that one can better understand the contribution that psychoanalysis has made to the history of film,” says Garnett. Alfred Hitchcock, with his acute understanding of the hidden depths of human nature, famously had an ambiguous relationship with “mind doctors,” but implicit (and often explicit) hints at psychoanalytic theory underscore many of his films, including Psycho, The Birds and North by Northwest.

“Psychoanalytic theory informs drama all the time, and permeates mainstream culture through drama …” she points out. “Film and TV has an enormous influence in this way.” Presumably this influence stretches to budding counsellors and psychotherapists.

Psychoanalytic theory now seems to be used as almost standard practice by screenwriters and directors, “When developing a film at Film Four,” Garnett tells me, “we might run our ideas past a psychoanalyst to talk about what characters would really be like.”

04 Woody Allen and Shrink

Woody Allen in ‘Annie Hall’ (1977)

However it is clear that a general understanding of elementary psychoanalytic concepts can still fail to produce psychologically coherent and therefore dramatically satisfying characters, with filmmakers as illustrious as David Cronenberg coming a cropper in his unconvincing Jung/Freud biopic A Dangerous Method.

A visit to the cinema and a therapy session have similarities; a certain escape or suspension of time, and perhaps more profoundly, as Garnett points out, “well-directed films and psychoanalysis are both about basic human fears and desires.”

“One goes to the cinema to be confronted in the same way one goes to analysis to confront.”

Some suggested further watching and reading