Director: David Teboul (France). Year of Release: 2022
This film tells the story of Sigmund Freud, born in 1856 in what would now be the Czech Republic. His Jewish family had traditionally emigrated East to avoid persecution, but shortly after Sigmund’s birth, they moved to Vienna, where he spent most of his life. Freud’s biographer Peter Gay summarizes this life as follows: “he studied, he travelled, he married, he practised, he held his lectures, he published, he disputed, he aged, he died.”
He also wrote, and much of the film is based on his correspondence, narrated by actors playing Freud, his daughter Anna, and later Marie Bonaparte, the French noblewoman who started as Freud’s patient, then became his translator and financer of his flight to London after Austria’s Anschluß with Nazi Germany. The narration is accompanied by vintage footage, some of Freud and his family, some of events related to the story being told.
The images that we see on screen have only an indirect relationship to the words that we hear, presumably encouraging us to let our subconscious take over and make free associations. The artistic success of the film depends on how much this combination of form and content works for you, and I must say that for me at least, it is generally not very effective.
The images are either blatantly obvious – the story of Freud breaking with his mentor is told while scenes from a bar fight flicker on screen – or just a bit weird – while one of the narrators explains the development of Freud’s analysis of sexuality, we see three nude women playing croquet. There is prolonged footage from what seems to be a combination of a Greek discus festival and Triumph of the Will which made no sense to me at all. But maybe that’s just me.
The lack of coherence is a shame, because the story that is being told is fascinating. From Freud’s youthful obsession with the Bible through witnessing his father experiencing an antisemitic attack, via Freud’s treatment of traumatized World War One soldiers to the development of his theories about dreams and sexuality, there is a lot of history here. As we go through some of Freud’s ideas and his personal history, we are bombarded with words like Id, Ego and Superego, or Conscious, Unconscious and Subconcious.
The trouble is that although we hear references to all the important phrases, these are rarely contextualised and we’re not really told why any of these ideas were important to the world outside. The film is too restless, too eager to move onto the next scene, but these various parts don’t hang together as a coherent whole. We are told snippets of interesting stories, which are then discarded and never referred to again.
So, we hear that Freud’s theories of sexuality corresponded to similar developments in the art of Vienna-based artists like Gustav Klimt (b. 1862) and Egon Schiele (b. 1890). But we are not shown any of these paintings, nor are we told exactly what Klimt and Schiele were doing that their predecessors were not. Why were they and Freud making breakthroughs at a similar time. Was it conscious? Did they meet and talk? Sadly, we don’t hear.
Similarly, we hear a brief and very interesting summary of Freud’s troubled relationship to Zionism. He called himself a proud Zionist, but didn’t believe Zionism to be practical, as he believed nationalism to be more of a Christian ideology. He supported the colonisation of Palestine in principle, but was also unsure of building a Jewish State so close to the holy sites of other religions.
This is, at least, what I learned from the film. It could be true, it could be an interpretation. But after this brief interlude, we hear nothing more either about Freud’s views on the subject, nor of anyone else’s. Instead, we jump to the next unconnected subject. The desire to let our subconscious decide how we respond to the film means that we lack important pieces of information which would help us base our response on actual facts.
In an interview about the film, director David Teboul said: “When I wanted to make a film about the life and thoughts of Sigmund Freud, it was much more important to me that you get a sense of his speech and his voice, of the thinker and his relationship to his daughter Anna. Inasmuch as I give a central role to Freud the thinker and not the psychoanalyst, I hope that as a director I have made an authentic Freudian film, and without commentary or explanation from experts.”
And this is, to me, part of the problem. I have a passing knowledge of Freud and know my feelings based on this knowledge. What I lack is sufficient context, which I hoped that a couple of experts could provide. More than with most films, I recognise that this is a personal reaction, that I don’t get the film in the way that it is intended. I’m sure that parts of the film which annoy and disappoint me are exactly the reasons why other people may love it.