Archive for the ‘ films ’ Category

Grands reportages : “Dans les corridors de l’Institut Philippe-Pinel” (RDI, Québec, 5 septembre 2013)

La chaîne de télévision québécoise RDI diffusera ce soir, jeudi 5 septembre, un documentaire sur l’institut psychiatrique Philippe-Pinel dans le cadre de l’émission Grands reportages. Le documentaire, en lice pour le Prix du public Télé-Québec lors de sa projection aux Rendez-vous du cinéma québécois l’hiver dernier, présente des malades internés ayant commis des crimes dangereux, mais aussi des psychiatres et intervenants de ce milieu encore méconnu.

Pour plus d’informations, voir deux articles récents publiés dans le journal Le Devoir et sur le site de Radio-Canada (ce dernier contenant une entrevue radiophonique avec la réalisatrice,  Hélène Magny).

Dean Brooks (1916-2013)

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The New York Times recently posted an obituary for Dean Brooks, the former superintendent of the Oregon psychiatric hospital where the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed.  Brooks served as head of the Oregon State Hospital from 1955 to 1981.

Camille Claudel, 1915

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Le dernier film du réalisateur français Bruno Dumont retrace trois journées de la vie de Camille Claudel (Juliette Binoche) à l’asile de Montdevergues près d’Avignon, peu après son transfert depuis l’asile de Ville-Evrard en 1915 et dans l’attente d’une visite de son frère, l’écrivain Paul Claudel (Jean-Luc Vincent). Ce sont trois journées vides – « elle s’ennuie beaucoup » dit à son frère le médecin directeur de l’établissement – que ne parviennent à remplir ni les promenades ni les repas, ni la prière ni les entretiens médicaux, ni le désespoir ni la foi. Le film saisit Camille Claudel, dans le jardin, sa chambre, dans le cloître ou la chapelle de l’établissement, s’abandonner à son sort sans jamais s’attacher à ce ou ceux qui l’entourent, si ce n’est, furtivement, à une aide dont un encouragement la décide à lui confier son courrier.

La caméra de Dumont ne quitte Camille que pour suivre les dernières étapes du voyage de son frère Paul jusqu’à Montdevergues. Le film prend dès lors une dimension nouvelle alors que le cinéaste, de façon très démonstrative, fait faire au frère les mêmes stations que sa sœur a déjà parcourues dans la première partie du film. Aux prières de Camille dans la chapelle de l’établissement, répond l’arrêt que fait maintenant Paul dans un monastère de Tarascon. Au long récit que Camille a livré au médecin directeur de Montdevergues de son désespoir de s’être vue internée contre son gré par sa famille renvoie celui que fait son frère à un prêtre de sa conversion au catholicisme. À Camille écrivant une lettre désespérée à une amie fait écho la confession tourmentée que Paul couche dans son journal. Au délire de persécution de Camille répond finalement la foi de Paul en un dieu tout puissant et présent dans tout le vivant. Le frère et la sœur apparaissent ainsi comme deux figures du génie aux prises avec la transcendance de la création, deux visions de la radicale altérité morale du créateur. On comprend à ce moment-là le vrai enjeu du film et la raison pour laquelle Dumont l’a situé en ce moment précis de l’histoire de son héroïne : cette ligne fine entre création, folie et foi qui sépare pourtant irrémédiablement les deux Claudel ; ce retour sur soi encore possible à ce moment tournant de l’entrée dans le monde nouveau de l’asile qui permet à l’un et l’autre d’exprimer avec une lucidité sans égale leurs tourments.

On pourrait sans doute commenter longuement ces figures, ce qu’elles traduisent de la vision de Dumont de l’artiste aux prises avec son destin et ce qu’elles ajoutent à l’une des filmographies les plus ambitieuses, esthétiquement et philosophiquement, du cinéma français contemporain. L’historien est nécessairement aussi intéressé par la représentation que le cinéaste propose de la maladie mentale et de la psychiatrie. Et à cet égard le film véhicule un sentiment étrange d’irréelle réalité. Dumont a filmé dans des murs qui à défaut d’être ceux de Montdevergues en ont suffisamment l’apparence pour que l’on s’y sente réellement et l’on perçoit à chaque instant l’effort de documentation mobilisé pour reproduire fidèlement l’ordonnancement des lieux. Il a mis dans la bouche de ses deux principaux personnages les mots mêmes qu’ils ont écrits dans leur poésie, leurs confessions ou leur correspondance. Et il a eu recours à des acteurs non professionnels, en l’occurrence des pensionnaires d’une maison d’accueil spécialisée voisine, pour figurer les pensionnaires de l’asile, radicalisant en cela une démarche employée dans ses films précédents qui faisaient déjà la part belle à des acteurs non professionnels. Il filme ces derniers de près, en très gros plan, sans voyeurisme mais sans concession non plus, nus et bavant, édentés et grimaçant, et ce qu’il donne à voir par là de la maladie et du handicap est peut-être une raison suffisante d’aller voir ce film.

Mais outre qu’il n’y a aucune raison de penser que les malades d’hier ressemblent aux personnes souffrant d’un handicap psychique d’aujourd’hui, ce réalisme quasi documentaire dans la représentation des personnes est contrebalancé par un étrange sentiment d’irréalité suscité par celle de l’institution. L’asile de Dumont est une hétérotopie radicale, hors du temps et hors du monde, perdue dans une garrigue magnifique mais déserte, enfermée dans l’atemporalité d’une architecture pluricentenaire. Hormis Camille Cludel, pensionnaires et soignantes présentent un masque que rien ne vient atteindre ni perturber, même lorsque la caméra saisit l’une d’entre elle entravée par une lourde ceinture de cuire. L’ensemble baigne dans une atmosphère d’apesanteur ouatée, de régularité tranquille que ne parviennent pas à briser les pleurs ou les colères de la sculptrice. On en vient à être finalement étonné que celle-ci se plaigne à son frère du bruit et des cris qu’elle doit supporter continuellement – dimension trop réelle des hôpitaux psychiatriques jusqu’au milieu du XXe siècle au moins – alors que l’ensemble du film baigne dans un silence d’une densité proprement religieuse. L’asile de Dumont est esquirolien en diable et l’on a rarement vu à l’écran institution psychiatrique aussi bien porter « ce doux nom d’asile ».

Ce sentiment d’étrangeté est peut-être encore renforcé par la représentation que Juliette Binoche donne de la sculptrice. À la voir à l’écran on ne peut en effet s’empêcher de se demander ce qu’elle fait là. Le film repose indéniablement sur une performance d’actrice et il fallait le talent de Binoche pour être Claudel dans cet asile, pour jouer ainsi avec la folie de Claudel et celle de ses partenaires de jeu. Mais Claudel-Binoche n’est très visiblement pas là à sa place. Elle apparaît littéralement en suspension dans ce milieu, jamais dans l’échange et moins encore dans l’identification, trop différente de ses compagnes d’infortune, trop à distance des soignantes, et en même temps pas assez résistante contre ce qui lui arrive. Elle n’appartient pas à la communauté asilaire, trop volubile et trop expressive là où ses compagnes d’infortune sont enfoncées dans un indépassable mutisme. Non que l’on soit poussé ainsi à douter de la légitimité de l’internement de Camille Claudel : Dumont se tient, on a envie de dire, ostensiblement à distance de tout jugement sur ce qu’il donne à voir. Dans le scandale vécu si intensément par Camille Claudel, c’est finalement moins ce qui pourrait être en effet scandaleux qui intéresse le réalisateur que ce que cela permet à l’artiste d’exprimer : le corps soignant est si manifestement dénué de la moindre intention qui pourrait lui être propre qu’il en vient à s’effacer totalement du drame vécu par Camille Claudel ; la froideur terrifiante de Paul Claudel, lorsqu’il finit par être mis face à sa sœur, apparaît en dernière analyse moins comme le reflet de son insensibilité à l’égard de celle-ci que de son intransigeance pour lui-même. C’est plutôt la singularité du délire de Claudel que Dumont cherche à capter.

Sans doute fallait-il pour y parvenir faire voir en quoi la sculptrice ne se fondait pas complètement dans la communauté asilaire et peut-être la destinée du génie déchu aurait-elle été rendue littéralement invisible si elle avait été saisie dans la banalité de sa condition d’internée. Mais cette vision romantique de l’artiste tourmentée contraste singulièrement avec ce qui fait l’âpre beauté du film, et l’on en vient à se demander finalement si Dumont n’aurait pas eu d’autres moyens pour soulever ces mêmes questions.

Film Review – A Dangerous Method. Directed by David Cronenberg, Sony Pictures 2011

By Geoffrey Cocks

One of the characteristics of the psychoanalytic movement in Central Europe during the early twentieth century was the often important professional role played by women as theorists, practitioners, and patients.  One of those who performed in all three roles was Sabina Spielrein, an intellectually gifted woman from an affluent Russian Jewish background studying in Zurich and suffering from childhood traumata.  Spielrein was to play a particularly important role in the early and ultimately broken relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.  Tyrannized by her own father, she would become Jung’s patient, colleague, and lover; one means for Jung to confront (or not) his own father issues; and, as a psychoanalyst herself the most important source for the articulation of the death instinct by a Freud beset with his own unresolved conflicts regarding his mother.  Freud’s version of Spielrein’s death instinct, formulated in the heaving wake of the First World War, would itself become part of the basis for object relations theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and feminist psychoanalytic sociology, all three of which conceived of the mother as the source of fundamental male discontent over desire for—and separation from—the original caretaker.  In the mid-twentieth century such and similar dynamics would coalesce with historical trends, events, and disasters in German history in particular to drive Hitler and his Nazi brethren to inflict anxious and murderous violence upon millions of human beings.  Among these millions of victims was Sabina Spielrein who, in the early months of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, was, together with her two daughters, among the Jews in Rostov-on-Don who were rounded up and shot.

Based primarily on clinical psychologist John Kerr’s book, A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud. And Sabina Spielrein (1993), A Dangerous Method begins on August 17, 1904.  A hysterical young woman is being transported by coach to the Cantonal Psychiatric Hospital and Clinic of Zürich, famously and widely known under the direction of Eugen Bleuler as the Burghölzli Clinic.  The woman is Sabina Spielrein, who is to be treated there by means of the “talking cure” pioneered by Sigmund Freud in Vienna.  As historian Peter Loewenberg has argued, the Burghölzli was a model scientific community in which new methods of psychiatry, in particular psychoanalysis, were cultivated.  One of the young men attracted to this creative scientific environment was a young follower of Freud’s method by the name of Carl Jung.  It is he who will supervise Spielrein’s treatment.  She will sit in a chair and he will sit in a chair located behind her.  Jung instructs her not to turn around but simply to talk about what she recalls about her life.  It is in this scene that the limitations of the film genre are most manifest.  Within less than three minutes of conversation—and one significant silence on the patient’s part—Jung elicits the core trauma of Spielrein’s childhood:  beatings by her father.  In a subsequent scene only two minutes are required for her to reveal that she was sexually aroused by the beatings and ever after would feel the urge to masturbate in response to any instance of emotional stress.  This elision of much of the hard, time-consuming work of mining the unconscious has the dramaturgical advantage, however, of drawing the viewer swiftly and surely into the pathos of the story the film has to tell.  The screenplay (written by Christopher Hampton from his play The Talking Cure [2002]) also includes one nice bit of parapraxis that emphasizes the content of unconscious emotion constituting a continuous individual history.  This is a very quickly spoken slip of the tongue by Spielrein as she describes how she began to seek out humiliation in order to experience arousal:  “I looked for any humiliation—even here.  You hit my cock with your stick.”  Suddenly the past (“looked”) has become the present (“even here”) and vice-versa in a classic psychoanalytic instance of transference, whereby the analyst becomes the object toward whom the patient expresses emotions connected with someone in the past.  Moreover, for the dramatic purposes of the film the future too is invoked since Spielrein and Jung will become lovers.  The nonsense statement (“my cock . . . your stick”) collapses the stick carried by the father (also his penis) into Jung’s (“your”), “my cock” representing her wish for possession of the penis as well as a rhetorical reversal that represents denial of the wish for sexual intercourse with Jung, her father, and any or all men.  She concludes:  “There’s no hope for me.  I’m vile.”

The first thing to say historically about what is to follow in the film is that there is no hard evidence that Jung and Spielrein had a sexual relationship, which included his indulgence of her masochism.  (Later, in 1910, when Spielrein comes to Jung’s home in Küsnacht for help with publication of her dissertation—and eventually they resume their sadomasochistic sex—Jung says that on Tuesday next “I’ll start ripping you to shreds.”)  Spielrein broadcast this relationship and kept a diary of it.  Today Freudians generally affirm the affair while Jungians generally deny it.  So-called “boundary issues” are a common occupational hazard in psychoanalysis wherein emotional involvement is central to treatment.  This was particularly the case in the early “frontier days” of psychoanalytic practice.  Also relevant in this regard is that the married Jung would later have a long-term sexual relationship with patient and colleague Toni Wolff.  In any case, the film presents the relationship as fact, beginning with Sabina’s invitation and Carl’s arrival one evening at her apartment door.  She—and the screenplay—in full psychoanalytic double-entendre mode tell him to “Come inside.”

It was this baggage that Jung carried with him to his first meeting with Freud.  The film shows Jung arriving in Vienna on March 3, 1906, but as Jung scholar Jay Sherry has pointed out, this meeting actually took place in 1907.  The film, again in indirect psychoanalytic fashion, hints at Jung’s own struggles with sexuality when it shows him at a dinner with an observant Freud and a tableful of astonished dinner guests, heaping his plate with mounds of food and vigorously gulping it all down.  The film seems to suggest that Jung’s insistence to Freud that psychoanalysis be a means of questing at mystical and eternal verities behind and beyond sexuality constituted unconscious denial of his own current and ongoing sexual needs, indulgences, and conflicts.  The film even provides in this respect a diaboli ex machina in the figure of Otto Gross, a brilliant but unstable psychoanalyst Freud had sent to Jung for treatment who appalls but also tempts Jung with his celebration of drug addiction and unrepressed sexuality.

The shadow of the coming World War—we know it of course—but the characters—and/or of course the filmmakers—too “sense” something terrible is in the offing.  In 1913 Jung, who believes, among other things, in premonitions, relates to a married and pregnant Sabina his recurrent dream of an apocalyptic flood from the North Sea that engulfs all of Europe and turns to blood, “the blood of Europe.”  And even more distant things, more terrible than the Great War.  Freud tells Spielrein to remember that they are Jews and that she should not put her trust in a fantasy of “mystical union with a blond Aryan” like Jung.  Indeed.  The concluding bits of text that are now standard in historical films tell us, over music from Wagner’s Siegfried, that Otto Gross starved to death in Berlin in 1919.  That Freud “was driven out of Vienna by the Nazis and died of cancer in London in 1939.”  And that Spielrein was taken by the Nazis to a synagogue in Rostov and murdered.  As for Jung:  He suffered from “a prolonged nervous breakdown during the First World War” and later became “the world’s leading psychologist.”  There is no mention of the fact that Jung for some years in the 1930s associated himself with a group of non-Jewish psychotherapists and psychoanalysts who established an institute for psychotherapy in Nazi Berlin under the leadership of a relative of Hermann Göring.


Geoffrey Cocks teaches at Albion College and is the author of numerous works, including
Psychotherapy in the Third Reich: The Göring Institute, 2nd ed. (Transaction 1997) and most recently The State of Health: Illness in Nazi Germany (Oxford 2012).

Film Review – Séraphine

1942, Senlis is at dawn and it’s dawn for Séraphine. The cleaning lady is not famous yet, except for being eccentric, but she paints already. The film begins and follows a 48 year old Séraphine cleaning in her days and painting at night.

Very little is known about her and especially about her painting methods. All we know is that she was using Ripolin, but the production of her colours is still obscure. Thus we follow her picking flowers and mixing pigments but no one ever saw her paint or creating her colours. The film makers obviously had to deal with missing information and decided to use interpretations, taking some ‘obliged’ freedoms with her life.

Those unknown parts of her life give a strong romantic content to the story. Indeed, the mysteries that surround her character and W.Udhe, her mentor and discoverer, creates a very literal atmosphere which is already present in the story itself. In fact we are here dealing with a mocked cleaning lady that becomes an important ‘attraction’ of Paris avant-garde art scene thanks to an art critic who was in Senlis only to find peace away from the capital city.

The two main characters are beautifully well defined and played. Yolande Moreau shows without prejudices the passion of this woman who is worn down by mental illness and who ends up prostrated in paranoia, in a mental hospital.

The description of the conditions of 2nd World War French asylums are very accurate. Whereas asylums were working on their own with form to lead the patients, the work made the staff flee until there were too many patients and too few funds. As a matter of fact illness and instability became common and patients, such as Séraphine, were dying of hunger.

Whereas there are plenty of examples of inmate artists, Séraphine always refused to paint as she entered the asylum. She was considering herself as a true artist and the condition of the mental institute did not fit with her idea of a work of art. On top of that, in her delusion she was not any artist, but the artist chosen by God.

Her fantasy of fame and fortune were however synonym of a frenetic work. Séraphine started to work less as a cleaning lady and spent most of her time painting incredible trees and flowers. She had listened to Udhe who, before fleeing from the Germans at the beginning of the Great War, had told her to work on her art as much as possible and before long Séraphine had reached an artistic level that not even Udhe had hoped her to attain.

She was now painting, on two meters high canvas, plants that seemed strangely alive. Those plants she painted could be a blend of the nature that she had always been surrounded by and where she loved to spend time watching the wildlife and countryside, as well as from the church decorations and processions. However she would explain her talents through God’s will. She said she had witnessed an apparition of the Virgin who asked her to paint. Séraphine’s relationship with God was extreme to the point that she painted kneeling on the floor while singing canticles.

Séraphine’s religious fever can be related to the time when she grew up, the French Church was in crisis and trying to appeal too more believers by a simplification of the discourse and an exaltation of the cult of the Virgin, in order to touch a more simple population. To some extent we can see an analogy between Séraphine, a real person, and Félicité, G.Falubert’s heroine from“ A simple Heart”, published in 1875. Félicité was a cleaning lady who worshipped a stuffed parrot to a point that it was for her the incarnation of the Saint Spirit. Flaubert’s story takes place at about the same time as Séraphine’s childhood.

Séraphine’s paranoia seems to increase when W.Uhde could not pay for all her expenses anymore because of the international economy crisis of the 1930’s. Her refusal to understand that her protector would not afford her extravagances increased her already existent delusions and her feeling of persecution and abandonement. The film also mentions Séraphine’s mysterious lover, a soldier from the Spanish Army. Another ‘mystery’ for us, another frustration for Séraphine.

Here the film does not reflect one important part of Séraphine’s delirium. As her illness grew she claimed to be pregnant and later in the asylum she would complain about the lack of food for her twins. The cult of the virgin is almost certain, identifying a woman’s need to give birth. Some of her paintings have hidden but obvious sexual symbols. Carnal screams of a childless forever virgin woman, pregnant for life of her own art.

The film being about Séraphine, it could not give too many details about the second main character Wilhelm Uhde. I would like to emphasize on this person because it seems to me important to place him in the history of Art Brut and outsider art. Thanks to his work as an art critic, a collector and here mainly as a talent discoverer, he can be seen as a precursor of the debate that will animate the Art’s world of the next generation. Indeed he recognized as artists people that were seen as outsiders. W.Uhde was an eccentric main figure of the Parisian avant-garde and discovered artists such as Picasso and the Douanier Rousseau. He was seeking for a primitivism of feelings developed by simple methods, as well as frenzy and instinctive outburst. His theory was that in art there should be a mix between the earthy roman architecture and the elevated gothic one.

His battle was to have these artists and their art recognized as so. One can’t deny here the link to Dubuffet’s later development notion of Art Brut. There is no evidence of a meeting of the two men. However it seems obvious that they would have heard about each other’s work.

Yet W.Uhde’s theory is too literal and romantic to be embraced and understood by anyone else but himself, while J.Dubuffet established a true definition of the art he defended. This definition, was for him, anything but a form of art standing against the academicals canons.

Thus Dubuffet was more striven by a quest than Uhde. In order to fight the academy’s prejudices, the inventor of Art Brut had to come up with a strong, scientific definition of a different form of art.

As a piece of art the film is strong, the atmosphere intimate and the acting of Y. Morreau so persuasive that you believe in every part of Séraphine’s delusion and become convinced that she has been both blessed and cursed by her obvious talents. There is a sad twist to the story of the film which has since been accused of 35 acts of plagiarism for having copied parts of Alain Vircondelet’s book about Séraphine. The verdict, that in nine specific cases it noted a similarity in the wording used between the screenplay for the film and the book, such that copyright had been infringed, was finally given in November 2010.

Coline Loison (Université du Maine)

Film Review – The King’s Speech: A talking cure for the stiff upper lip

By Annemone Ligensa

In 1865, in an American newspaper, the English journalist George Augustus Sala wrote about his countrymen:

“Some of us lisp, and some of us drawl, and some of us stutter, and many of us hem and haw, and a great many of us clap on H’s where there should be none, and take away H’s where they should be left. We are always speaking, and yet we speak badly.”

Arguably, the British take great pride in the beauty of their language, especially spoken language. Public speaking is the very fabric on which the nation is built. Hence, politics and performance have a symbiotic relationship. This was not something modern media invented: It goes back as far as Elizabeth I and Shakespeare. At least two Englishmen could not afford to speak badly: the monarch, and his fool. Today, the Empire is no more, but the one thing that still distinguishes an Englishman from global Americanization is his speech. Stripped of his accent, TV viewers never guess that Dr. Gregory House was once Bertie Wooster.

Which brings us to another Bertie, the one who later became George VI, and his wise fool, Lionel Logue, an Australian Henry Higgins, something of a contradiction in terms for another George, Bernie Shaw. Or rather, it brings us to the poor players that play their shadows on the screen, Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. To put the thespian cart before the horse, the filmmaker’s achievement is not the treatment of their subject matter, but creating a film that is such a hit, both with critics as well as the audience at large. Many of the historical inaccuracies of this film have already been painstakingly nitpicked, some of the psychological ones too, but nonetheless most viewers were enthralled by the film.

The real story goes something like this. Albert, the second son of King George V, spoke with a stammer. He sought help and found it in Lionel Logue, an elocution teacher. When his older brother Edward VIII abdicated to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson in 1936, Albert ascended to the throne as King George VI. Together with his wife Elizabeth (later affectionately known as Queen Mum), he led the nation through WWII.

Geoffrey Rush has thanked the British royals for creating a “massive historical soap opera”. Indeed, dramatizations of the period have focused more often on the sensational story of Edward and Wallis’s public romance rather than on Bertie and Lionel’s discrete Pygmalion bromance. For added effect, the filmmakers obviously learned from the best: Sigmund Freud. Even though Freud famously snubbed Hollywood, he was a master storyteller with a propensity for the melodramatic deus ex machina ending, casting himself in the role of the deus, of course. Whereas Freud tended to exaggerate the effectiveness of his treatment, the filmmakers exaggerate the severity of the affliction. Both Freud and the film, whether knowingly or not, misrepresent the cause, as well as the cure.

The current view on stuttering that continues into adulthood (many children have a temporary phase of stuttering) is that it is a neurological disorder with a genetic component, except for those cases that are the consequence of injury. Anxiety may worsen stuttering (e.g. the situation of public speaking), and stutterers often have feelings of low self-esteem due to social stigmatization, but this is not the primary cause. The subtle difference between correlations and causes is often lost in popular psychology.

By contrast, the film piles on common beliefs that have found little or no support in research (to the point that the affliction seems over-determined), and clearly favors psychoanalytic theories as the final explanation. Furthermore, whether intentionally or not, the facts known from biographies are distorted to fit this view. Firstly, the film makes Albert’s stuttering appear far worse than it was; it only occurred in public speaking, not in private conversation. If the subtle Oxford stutter endears a snob to the average person, then the filmic portrayal of Albert’s stutter seems bent on melting even Oliver Cromwell’s heart. Secondly, it is true that Albert was a sensitive child who was subjected to the cruelties of contemporary pedagogy (such as being left with nannies, having to learn to use the right hand instead of the left, correction of knock knees with splints etc.), but these were common in upper class families at the time. Whatever physical and psychological harm they caused, it was not necessarily stuttering. Thirdly, certainly even a royal prince was not spared painful ridicule of his affliction, perhaps even from family. The film makes Albert’s father and brother appear as beastly bullies. But in actual fact, Albert and Edward had a friendly relationship, and George disapproved of Edward’s libertinism much more than he was embarrassed about Albert’s shortcomings, even wishing Albert and not Edward would succeed him on the throne. These changes align all too neatly with Freudian ideas that stuttering is connected with a fear of paternal authority originating in the anal phase. References to anality abound in the film: Lionel’s first appearance is accompanied by the sound of a flushing toilet, and as one of the dramatic center pieces, Albert shouts expletives, especially of the fecal variety, during a therapy session. This is portrayed as an act of liberation from familial and cultural repression and hence literally as regaining his freedom of speech.

These pseudo-explanations are obviously not merely regarded as contemporary misconceptions, because they are directly connected with the actual therapeutic progress. Despite his interest in shell-shock, one which Freud happens to have shared, Logue seems to have employed physical techniques rather than psychological ones. In contemporary newspaper reports, he even stressed that his royal patient’s affliction was physical rather than psychological. This might be regarded as motivated by the intent to dispel any doubts about sanity or intelligence, but there is also the fact to consider that progress was much more rapid than the usual duration of psychoanalysis, another fact that the film misrepresents, even though it does depict techniques such as breathing exercises, etc. Incidentally, the film claims that the therapy was kept secret, perhaps to emphasize the general atmosphere of repression.

The film delivers the coup de grâce not only to its own credibility, but probably contrary to its intention also to the psychoanalytic explanations it expounds, in a scene of a therapy session that is portrayed as the pivotal one. With great emotion, stammering so badly as to be almost unable to speak at all, even though what he relates took place before his conscious recollection so that he could only have heard it from others, Albert tells Lionel that as an infant, he had a nanny who pinched him, so that he would cry when presented to his parents, and afterwards she refused to breastfeed him, which caused his stomach problems, and, it is implied, also his stuttering. That bad breastfeeding causes stuttering is another myth that long predates psychoanalysis. It is true that Albert had chronic stomach problems. The story about the nanny is also true – but it was Edward and not Albert that was the target of her sadistic game. One cannot help but wonder if the filmmakers, among them screenwriter David Seidler, who suffers from stuttering himself, unknowingly misrepresent such facts due to an overzealous devotion to psychoanalysis, or whether they knowingly distort them to tap into the appeal of the “talking cure”, which Hollywood has done as much to promote as Freud.

But it doesn’t end here. The film goes on to connect this personal story with public, political events. As many reviewers have pointed out, Churchill supported Edward and not Albert to the last, and simply out of personal sympathy, not due to differences in political views. Edward’s flirtation with fascism may have been more of a fetishistic sort (probably stuff for a much more sensational psychoanalytic “case study”), but Albert was just as supportive of appeasement. In a notorious gesture, he invited Neville Chamberlain for a public appearance on the royal balcony immediately after his return from the Munich conference in 1938, without the parliament’s prior approval. By contrast, the film makes Albert appear fully aware of the danger and this even part of his motivation to overcome his problems. In reality, he had managed his stutter relatively well many years before the abdication crisis. Hence the personal struggle is aligned with the greater good, and both triumph together, in the fashion of old-fashioned melodrama. It is a fictionalization of reality that makes it all look much too neat. Certainly, that is precisely the reason for its appeal.

Nevertheless, what I still enjoyed and enthusiastically applaud is the most British contribution to this very American film, and that is the acting. British acting is still the finest in the world, and the cast includes several fine actors. The fact that stuttering can’t be learned by empathizing with its causes and consequences, but only like a foreign language, and that Firth does it so convincingly, is a tribute to “outside in” approaches rather than “inside out” approaches (such as “The Method”). Hence, the acting escapes or transcends the excessive psychologization of the narrative, and celebrates the beauty and the power of bodies and speech – flaws and all. This is extremely enjoyable and moving and would have been more than enough for me. In the long run, this might also have done activism against the stigmatization of stuttering a better service than the film’s factual distortions. Alas, in the last instance, the play’s the thing to capture the conscience of the audience. All too often, the filmmakers’ expectations extend no further than the box office dollar on opening weekends. Some films have a more lasting appeal though, and if the prizes lavished on it are any indication, this seems to be one of them. But despite the references to Shakespeare, it is at best comparable to a fairy tale (in particular, THE LITTLE PRINCE comes to mind). Significantly, Seidler’s previous efforts have been children’s stories. If only he had left the “adult” concerns out of this one.

Annemone Ligensa recently completed her PhD in Theater, Film and Television Studies at the University of Cologne, Germany. She is currently employed in the research project “Visual Communities: Relationships of the Local, National, and Global in Early Cinema”.

Review: Shutter Island

(Note: This review contains plot spoilers).

There are leaks in the ceiling. A storm is brewing. Inside, passageways are dark and twisted, and outside carefully groomed grounds are juxtaposed with ominous cliffs, crashing waves, and inaccessible caves (not to mention rats by the dozen). The setting of Martin Scorsese’s most recent film, Shutter Island, seems to be a hodge-podge of hastily drawn psychoanalytic symbols. Location? The mind of a madman.

Based on a Dennis Lehane novel of the same name, Shutter Island takes place in and around Ashecliffe  Hospital, an institution for the criminally insane located on a New England island. The film opens on a ferry transporting the protagonist, federal marshal Teddy Daniels (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) to the island to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a patient who has somehow escaped from a locked cell. Once the missing patient anticlimactically reappears halfway through the film, however, the viewer becomes aware that she is a mere plot device, serving to bring Daniels to the island for the real investigation, which seems to involve secret, experimental surgeries forced on patients in an old lighthouse near Ashecliffe.

The thematic content of Shutter Island draws from a fraught period in the history of psychiatry, incorporating both the transorbital lobotomies made popular across the U.S. by neurologist Walter Freeman as well as the psychotropic drugs that were responsible for the surgery’s decline as the pharmaceutical treatments quickly gained popularity in the 1950s. The transorbital lobotomy (which involves an ice pick-like instrument inserted through the orbit of the eye and into the brain to sever nerve fibers) was performed, at times against a patient’s will (but sometimes with the consent of family), on thousands of people in the U.S., “treating” everything from depression, alcoholism, and unruly personalities to schizophrenia and other diagnosed mental illnesses. The movie depicts the complicated views on lobotomy in the 50s, when some practitioners were horrified at the zombielike patients the procedure produced. Ultimately, the pro-surgery doctors at Ashecliffe have the final say in the “treatment” of the protagonist. The film presents the procedure as a necessary evil in order to protect the staff and patients from Daniels, the asylum’s most violent criminal, whom neuroleptics have not sufficiently subdued.

In Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), Ashecliffe’s primary physician, we are given a third type of psychiatric treatment in the form of psychotherapy. Self-described as a more humane practitioner, Cawley believes in the respect, dignity, and human rights of his patients. The inclusion of these dueling theories increases the stakes for Daniels’ actions as he runs through an elaborate investigation that is stymied by doctors and patients alike. He is eventually told that his partner, Chuck, has been his psychiatrist for the past two years and that everything he thinks is real on Shutter Island is actually an elaborate role-playing exercise constructed to bring him back to sanity and an awareness of his former crimes. The interpretation of his experiences ultimately becomes the focal point of the movie: is he mad or isn’t he? Is the plotline of the missing woman, investigation, and experimental procedures a paranoid delusion, or is he merely being made to believe he is insane to cover up the conspiracy? Although this hackneyed twist has drawn the derision of many reviewers, the film contains nuanced reflections on mental illness that go beyond the old “it was all a dream/it was me/it was a delusional fantasy” revelation. For example, we are confronted in several cases with the idea that once a person has been diagnosed with insanity (or even merely been assumed to be insane), it is nearly impossible for him or her to escape the associations and deprivation of political and personal power that come with such a conclusion. In the film, this of course leads us to further question how we can ever know whether Daniels (a supposedly crazy person who says he isn’t crazy) is or is not insane, but it also provokes consideration of similar diagnoses in contemporary culture—once mentally ill, always mentally ill? The right of interpretation–who determines what is or isn’t sane?–is questioned as well in the character of a woman who killed her husband after he abused her and no one would help. While considered insane by society, she found the action to be completely reasonable in the absence of other options.

Despite the inclusion of multiple forms of psychiatric intervention and constant emphasis of the subtleties of determining the boundaries of the normal, the film also contributes to harmful stereotypes that still circulate in today’s society, leading to the stigmatization and isolation of those with mental illness. The movie both plays on and contributes to the fear of insanity. Some will be quick to write off the portrayal of mental illness as merely an accurate representation of the asylums of a bygone era, but the force of such manifestations should not be discounted in a world where the stigma associated with mental illness is still going strong.  While, of course, some of the horrible experiences of patients in mental hospitals during the twentieth century are well documented, the almost exclusive portrayal of mental illness in movies as something to be feared or reviled propagates modern-day stereotypes that are painfully similar to the historical situations that may have initially inspired them. Although people with mental illness are, as a whole, no more or less violent than the rest of society, the constant portrayal of the insane patient who murders without cause still permeates popular assumptions about disorders of the mind and brain. Shutter Island presents us with anxieties over patients escaping, mauled faces, descriptions of murders the patients committed, and of course the most dangerous patient, our protagonist, a trained soldier who can only be controlled by the “brain death” of the lobotomy. Scorsese does not depart greatly from the pulpy source material, so one could blame Lehane for the cardstock representation of insanity, but Scorsese’s most obvious alteration is just as clichéd and harmful. At the end of the film, just before being carted away to be lobotomized, Daniels delivers this hardboiled line: “Is it better to live as a monster or die as a good man?” That Scorsese has even the patient himself validate the decision to lobotomize speaks to an anxious desire to settle the matter. Of course, the crazed escapee on a murdering rampage makes much better box office fodder than would a more humane representation of the spectrum of mental deviations and psychiatric care, but even so it would be nice to see more films centering on more accurate depictions of mental illness today.

Sarah Birge

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