ESFS Festivals

ESFS Festival #4 Wrap-Up – Psychotherapy on Film

1977_equus1By Mike Dub and Daniel Barnes

MD: Going into this festival, I wanted to concentrate on the subgenres and archetypes of the movie psychiatrist, but after watching these three films, another thread struck me as being prominent to the psychotherapy film: the relationship between prestige and exploitation.  All three films we watched embodied a mix of high art pretensions (A Dangerous Method was the only one not nominated for an Oscar, but it won a slew of other nominations, including a Golden Globe), and the shocking, tabloid sensationalism of crazy people doing crazy things.  It’s a mix that, in retrospect, seems to exist more consistently when dealing with psychiatry than any other field in movies.  Was there anything in particular that stood out for you among these three films?

Three-Faces-of-Eve-1957-Lee-J.-Cobb-Joanne-Woodward-David-Wayne-pic-3DB: That I would be crazy to seek help from a trained psychotherapist.  As I understand it, transference is both a key component and a prime pitfall of the therapist-patient relationship, but that mostly regards transference of emotions and possibly identity.  In both Equus and A Dangerous Method, however, the disturbed patients played by Peter Firth and Keira Knightley merely transfer their debilitating madness directly on to their psychotherapists.  By the end of Equus, Richard Burton’s capable youth psychiatrist wonders if an end to madness might also herald an end to passion and freedom.  A Dangerous Method is structured around a series of dialogues, and delusions are exchanged like a fever – one of the recurring jokes is that Jung (a perfectly calculated Michael Fassbender) repeatedly undermines his carefully composed theories about psychology with his own actions.  Of course, the idea that doctors are crazier than their patients is one of the classic tropes in any film about the human mind, from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to What About Bob?.  The stodgy doctor played by Lee J. Cobb in The Three Faces of Eve is portrayed as decent and kind, but there is also a (probably unintentional) subtext of cruelty and ownership in his methods of treating Joanne Woodward’s multiple-personality patient, which include intentional deception and the use of hypnosis as means of first, last, and only resort.  Eve’s condition is given definition only by the men in her life, including her husband and doctor, but that masculine control also extends to the film’s form (TV journalist Alistair Cooke offers a contextualizing introduction) and style (or lack thereof).  But I’m curious, Dub, since you programmed this festival, why do you think that psychotherapy has been such an exploitable cinematic subject?

equusMD: In addition to all of the easily extracted emotional drama, I think there is another reason that psychiatrists are such fertile film subjects: the fictional psychiatrist highlights just how much about the human mind we don’t know.  Most of us are simply do not know what the hell is going on up there, and because of that, filmmakers are able to construct stories that are almost as much like science fiction as they are mysteries.  That two of our festival films are based on true stories only confounds the relationship between movie-science and entertainment.  Because these worlds are generally unknown, filmmakers are free to create any logic that suits their purpose: a woman’s domestication in the 1950s leads to the construction of an entirely new, rebellious personality; a brutally traumatic childhood molds one into a psychoanalytic iconoclast; the repression of homosexuality leads to horse rape.  Are these things necessarily “realistic”?  Hell, I don’t know… and most of us don’t.  I also didn’t notice 15 physics mistakes in Gravity until Neal deGrasse Tyson pointed them out.  Daniel, I curated and introduced this festival, but I was hoping that you could talk a little bit more about each film.

DM13_44m_eoq8myjeDB: The Three Faces of Eve was easily my least favorite film of the festival, a pulse-less, self-important dud salvaged only by Woodward’s technically superb performance, but even that is undermined by an overbearing male, in this case hack writer-director Nunnally  Johnson.  We don’t need the transformation of prim Eve White into lively Eve Black announced with a horny, red-light sax riff, especially since Woodward plays that sax riff across her face and body.   Equus was pure trash, but I was also pretty captivated by its multilevel narrative structure, the turned-to-11 commitment of the leads, and by director Sidney Lumet’s straitlaced assertion that none of this horsefucking nonsense is as ridiculous as it looks.  The ideas and arguments of Equus probably seemed less silly as abstractions on the stage, but if you were going to do a literal adaptation, you couldn’t do any better than Lumet did here.  A Dangerous Method is the film that I was most pleasantly surprised by – I saw Cronenberg’s movie when it was released in late 2011, and perhaps expecting something more stylistically kinky, I had trouble connecting.  This time around, the poison-tipped comedy swimming just under the surface began to emerge, which is something I think is characteristic of Cronenberg’s work – things that seem clinical and disturbing on first viewing turn into sick comedy on subsequent watches.  My favorite gag in the film comes fairly late – Fassbender’s Jung and his patient/colleague/mistress played by Knightley, attempting to forge a platonic working relationship, arrive at a theory on sex that refutes Viggo Mortensen’s Freud.  Hard cut to spanking.  It’s both a subtle and vulgar use of editing, and for all of the “staginess” in A Dangerous Method, it is something you could not actually replicate on a stage.  Do you think there is anything in the aesthetic nature of movies that makes them particularly suited to telling these kinds of stories?

three-faces-of-eve-the-1957-8MD: Film is a perfect medium to discuss psychology in large part because of its ability to literalize psychology through moving images.  The Three Faces of Eve, for example, depicts Eve’s regression to the catalytic event of her childhood by surrounding Joanne Woodward, Eve’s adult body, with a set that dwarfs her size to that of a child, an infantilized woman trapped by the trauma of her youth.  In Equus, Sidney Lumet creates a dizzying, surreal sex scene in which a disturbed young man rides naked on a horse until he achieves orgasm.  Given the editing, the scope, and the size of the sets, neither of those scenes would have been effective, or even possible, in any other medium (at least at the time that they were made).  And that doesn’t even touch upon the more surreal expressions we have seen in other films – for instance, Salvador Dali’s famous dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound.

… and your hour is up.  Let’s finish the Psychotherapy on Film festival by ranking and grading each film.


1) The Three Faces of Eve (B-)

2) A Dangerous Method (B-)

3) Equus (C)


1) A Dangerous Method (B)

2) Equus (B-)

3) The Three Faces of Eve (C+)