Therapy Films

Therapy Films

by Andrew Key


In 1895 at least two important things happened. In the summer, Sigmund Freud began work on The Interpretation of Dreams, his major study into the nature of dreams and their relation to the unconscious. Dream interpretation would become the foundation of Freud’s talking cure, a central therapeutic technique offering his clients a way to overcome neurosis. Reflecting on this period of research and discovery a few years later, after his book had been published, Freud reminisced in a letter to his friend and collaborator Wilhelm Fliess, writing:

“Do you suppose that some day a marble tablet will be placed on the house, inscribed with these words: ‘In this house on 24 July 1895, the secret of dreams was revealed to Dr. Sigm. Freud’? At the moment I see little prospect of it.”

Meanwhile, in December 1895, the Lumière brothers in Paris projected the first moving pictures ever shown to a paying audience, using the Cinématographe device. Only six months between Freud’s discovery of the secret of dreams and the first public cinematic experience. Ever since there has been a sometimes celebratory, sometimes uneasy relation between these two spheres of activity, the cinema and the talking cure, and both have impacted the other.

Films can be therapeutic in a number of ways, not just by offering a comfortable and ready-to-hand experience of catharsis. Like therapy at its most effective, films can provide us with objects of fixation and desire; they can reveal our obsessions and sticking points, dislodging and unearthing experiences which we’ve tried to forget or move beyond.

By no means exhaustive, this is an annotated list of films which are, in one way or another, concerned with psychotherapy. They’re films which either use therapy as a plot device, feature psychotherapists as protagonists, or document actual experiences of some kind of therapy. Some of them are easier to find than others, but all are worth seeking out.

DRAMAS

SECRETS OF A SOUL (DIR. G. W. PABST, 1926). The first film about psychoanalysis, made in consultation with Freud’s friend and collaborator Karl Abraham. Freud wasn’t interested in the project, and actively tried to prevent his name being attached to it, writing to Abraham that he didn’t think psychoanalytical insights and abstractions could be represented satisfactorily on the screen. A silent film which uses avant-garde techniques to depict the contortions and exaggerations of the dream-world.

SPELLBOUND (DIR. ALFRED HITCHCOCK, 1945). Hitchcock classic starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. Bergman falls in love with the handsome new head of the psychiatry department of the remote Vermont hospital where she works, only to find out that he is an imposter and probably a murderer. Featuring some overambitious dream sequences designed by Salvador Dalí.

PRESSURE POINT (DIR. HUBERT CORNFIELD, 1962). Peter Falk is a young therapist who is frustrated with his patient, a Black man who hates him because he’s white. He takes his problem to his superior, Sidney Poitier, who tells him about the time he spent working with a Nazi sympathiser. A film interested in the question of whether psychoanalysis can cure hatred, with an ambivalent answer. 

KLUTE (DIR. ALAN J. PAKLUA, 1971). Neo-noir crime thriller starring Jane Fonda as a sex worker helping a detective (Donald Sutherland) solve a missing persons case. The use of therapy in this film is not a plot point, but a way of giving Fonda’s character depth and an opportunity to explore interiority in a way that most genre films of this kind wouldn’t bother with. A surprisingly accurate depiction of what therapy is like, allowing us to see Fonda’s cycles of indecision at work. 

BAD TIMING (DIR. NICOLAS ROEG, 1980). Art Garfunkel as an American psychotherapist living in Vienna who becomes obsessed with a free-spirited younger American woman, slipping into the realm of jealous aggression, stalking, and sexual fixation. Garfunkel uses his professional credentials to hide and justify his behaviour; this is a film about the misuse of the power in the hands of helping professionals, about the fact that just because someone is a psychotherapist doesn’t mean they’re not a horrible and dangerous person.

ORDINARY PEOPLE (DIR. ROBERT REDFORD, 1980). A study of grief and its aftershocks in an upper-middle class Illinois family who have lost a child. Starring Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, and Judd Hirsch as a therapist who helps their son come to terms with his guilt about his brother’s death. An absolutely devastating masterpiece which takes seriously the idea that psychotherapy can have a meaningful impact on someone in deep crisis, and a successful therapist is someone who knows how to actually care about their clients. Extremely emotionally intense. Also a Christmas film!  

HOUSE OF GAMES (DIR. DAVID MAMET, 1987). Another neo-noir crime thriller (the genre for psychotherapists, unsurprisingly), this is another film about the ways that psychotherapists are fallible people who are as susceptible to compulsion and obsession as the rest of us. Lindsay Crouse is a hot-shot psychiatrist who has written a best-seller and is now completely bored with her life; she becomes entangled in the world of conmen, who demonstrate to her that you don’t have to have fancy degrees to understand and exploit people’s psychological weaknesses. 

A COUCH IN NEW YORK (DIR. CHANTAL AKERMAN, 1996). A meet-cute rom-com starring William Hurt, Juliette Binoche and a big friendly golden retriever. An American psychoanalyst and a Parisian dancer swap apartments for a while. Juliette Binoche starts seeing William Hurt’s clients and manages to resolve all of their previously intractable problems, just through the power of her Gallic charm. I can never tell whether this film is really great or really stupid, but maybe it’s both. 

DOCUMENTARIES

THE TASK (DIR. LEIGH LEDARE, 2017). Not strictly a film about therapy, more a film about social psychology, this is a documentary about group dynamics; it uses a set of constraints (no fixed conversation topics, an focus on the here and now, an attention to dynamics around authority) to see how a group of 28 strangers placed in a room together will respond to each other’s behavior over a weekend. Absolutely fascinating and agonizing, especially when the director enters the circle in the climax. (Available to watch here: https://leighledare.com/The-Task)

THE WORK (DIR. JAIRUS MCLEARY & GETHIN ALDOUS, 2017). Another film about group work, this time taking place in a men’s group in Folsom Prison that is open to outsiders (‘civilians’) for a weekend. Brutal introspection, reflection, tenderness, compassion and anger: extremely intense to watch but very cathartic and compelling. A great way to spend 90 minutes weeping.

YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU (DIR. PAWEŁ ŁOZIŃSKI, 2016). The mother-child relationship is key in many approaches to psychotherapy. You Have No Idea How Much I Love You (the title alone should give you a hint of what it’s like) is a Polish documentary which shows the slow process of reconciliation between a parent and child. The participants are actors but it isn’t scripted, with the actors using their own personal histories and experiences to explore the dynamic.  

LA MOINDRE DES CHOSES (DIR. NICOLAS PHILIBERT, 1997). In the French countryside there’s a psychiatric clinic called La Borde, which is organised on the principle of democratic centralism, with the boundary between staff and patients being mostly removed. This is a documentary about the institution’s staging of a surrealist play by Witold Gombrowicz. A fascinating exploration of the world of individuals living with diagnoses of schizophrenia, and an interrogation of the usual approaches to treatment. This is a deeply humanising documentary which contains a radical critique of contemporary society and its attitude to illness.

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE UNDERNEATH (DIR. JANE ARDEN, 1972). This is an avant-garde work of deep intensity, which I’ve included as a ‘documentary’ for convenience but which refuses the very idea of fact or fiction. A distressing and visceral examination of the experience of mental illness and its relation to gender, a feminist work of radical experimentation, the only British feature film directed by a woman in the 1970s. Not an easy watch. 

LET THERE BE LIGHT (DIR. JOHN HUSTON, 1946). Made at the end of the Second World War for the US military, this is a film about the uses of group therapy for treating post-traumatic stress disorder among returning veterans. It shows the reality of the experience of traumatic distress in a way that hadn’t been previously captured on film, and the US military ended up suppressing the film (worried about how demoralising it might be if people realised the psychological impact of war on soldiers) until the 1980s.