Psychoanaliterate Film Reviews

AGIP regularly hosts fim screenings of films from a psychoanalytic perspective at which a discussion is hosted by an AGIP therapist, discussing the film's analytic, therapeutic and unconscious elements.

‘Mommy Dearest’
‘The Fighter’/‘Animal Kingdom’

 Whilst lurking in the dark in cinemas this winter I was delighted to find that two genre films that I particularly enjoyed spoke the same distressingly skewed latter day oedipal language. David O. Russell’s ‘The Fighter’ (based on a true story), an A list Hollywood boxing picture ostensibly (and yet on closer study, actually, a sibling rivalry drama) featuring two half brothers literally fighting for the attention and favour of their fierce Irish American matriarch/manager (Melissa Leo, picking up an Oscar for her efforts). Leo is superb, breaking the hearts of the less favoured sons around the world, not only preferring Christian Bale’s feckless, crack addicted, under achieving and delusional Dicky to Mark Wahlberg’s modest, likeable, if slightly slow off the mark Micky, but her lackadaisical handling of Micky’s boxing career has physically (in the ring) damaging as well as emotional consequences (outside the ring), as Micky struggles to make sense of his own identity and sense of self worth in an environment not geared up with his needs or well being in mind.  David O. Russell has a history with the dysfunctional mother/son relationship, lest we forget his superbly dark (1994) debut, ‘Spanking the Monkey’ which focuses on the thorny subject of maternal incest.

I found ‘The Fighter’ to be a hugely enjoyable and superior blue collar family drama, somewhat under rated psychologically by most critics (who seemed to focus on the differing acting styles of it’s male stars and the fact that it was “about” boxing), whilst Mellissa Leo and Amy Adams (playing Wahlberg’s girlfriend Charlene, supportive, sexy and familiarly tough in equal measures) steal the film from the big male stars, doing some superb fighting (and acting) of their own, vying for supremacy in Micky’s affairs. The finale is very moving, with Micky eventually able to stand up to his mother (pleading with her to think of him for once ahead of his disgraced brother), Charlene (who has taken over his affairs by now but insists it be on her own exclusive terms) and his manipulative brother Dicky. This seems more of an achievement for Micky than when he eventually wins the title, a maturational victory, calling the shots

for himself whilst pulling all of his warring loved ones together, orchestrating them to fight together for him in a unified way. He not only gets his shot at the title, but he does so on his own terms and by facing down his emotional demons, internal and external. Mark Wahlberg gives a quiet, thoughtful performance; you can see his mind working as he considers and works through his emotional difficulties. Boxing pictures are not often this emotionally and relationally nuanced.

Meanwhile, in Australia, writer/director David Michod serves up a five star family crime drama with many of the same ingredients as Russell’s movie. In this story a group of three brother’s and assorted extended family appear as a low grade crime gang whose history as bank robbers is under threat as a result of differing factors; the times are changing in modern Melbourne and their type of gang (no matter how violent or ruthless) are becoming easy pickings for the modern, sophisticated police force (embodied by the superb, emotionally restrained Guy Pearce) who seem ready to swoop, coupled with the gangs complete lack of sophistication and talent for self destruction. As the story progresses we struggle to identify who is in charge of this unravelling group. The brothers are a mixture of the psychopathic cold blooded killer type; the psychotic drug addled paranoid, unravelling before our eyes and the easily led one with an inferiority complex. Throw into the mix 17 year old Josh, the brother’s cousin, whose mother has just died as the result of a drug overdose and the scene is one of confusion and paranoia. As Josh says in what must be the most understated voiceover ever, “they were all scared”.

About half way through the movie it becomes apparent (a chilling realisation) that the boys ever present and emotionally controlling mother is really the gangs leader, the one calling the shots; played with a sense of edgy and sinister passive aggression, she watches from the shadows of the family home as her sons self- destruct one by one in the manner most suited to each of their particular dysfunctional personalities. Veteran of Australian cinema, Jacki Weaver gives an even more chilling, cold eyed killer version of destructive mothering than Melissa Leon in ‘The Fighter’. Her boys die in rapid succession but her facial expression barely changes. This is because her visage is one of eerie madness from the beginning. She doesn’t go mad as a result of the unfolding drama like Lady Macbeth. She already is mad. She is the source of the boy’s dysfunction. Her inappropriate mothering is apparent from early on when we see her kissing her sons full on the mouth in a disturbingly erotic caricature of affectionate mothering. She French kisses her sons whilst setting up their demise. I found myself wondering where the absent father was, imagining bloody oedipal slayings carried out by the “boys” on “Ma’s” behalf.

The critics mainly focused on the socio political aspect of this movie, namely the difficulties facing those on the fringes of a modern, changing world; the shrinking of any kind of wild frontier in the computer age; but for me the most interesting aspect of this movie was the psychodynamic; the virtually Biblical elements of the drama, the sins of the Mother played out by her hapless offspring, underprepared and unable to be anything other than the enactment of their mothers projected, hostile psychosis.  

Don Butler – April 2011

‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’

Indeed we do! And will for some time to come I’m sure. Thanks to director Lynne Ramsey, who burst onto the British feature film scene in 1999 with her near perfect debut ‘Rat catcher’ and has recovered from the slightly disappointing Morvern Caller (2002) by producing not only the best film of 2011, but one of the greatest psychodynamic studies of familial dysfunctionality ever filmed.

We Need To Talk About Kevin works on many levels and is a virtual masterpiece, albeit one that will be painful viewing for the majority. Although I loved it without reservation and found it opened multiple lines of enquiry in my mind (not least the realisation of how often ambivalent mothering is found to be present clinically) I did consider that this was not a film I would like to view repeatedly; but that is paying the greatest compliment to its unflinching rawness.

On one level (not stylistically) it is a horror film plain and simple, building up from its blood red (tomatoes!) metaphor in its opening (dream?) scene to its bloody climax; on another it is the most starkly filmed representation of (non) attachment theory gone wrong, a study of ambivalent mothering (and ineffectual fathering) resulting in the slow burn development of a psychopath. The gaping space (both emotional and physical) between mother and child is apparent from the earliest scenes, with tables, furniture, rooms, cars and other every day family settings seeming to suggest vast un-bridgeable distances between the mother and son, right up until the tragic final scene of incarceration and the mothers ultimate impotence; It could also be viewed as a fairly straightforward (once the pieces all fall into place) Freudian Oedipal drama. Young Kevin does eventually see off his rivals and gets his mother to himself (forcing her ultimately to consider him), but only in the distanced circumstances/environment of a prison visiting room (sitting opposite one another on yet another monolithic table), with Kevin in chains at the behest of the great patriarch that is Society and the Law; It is also a great ‘art’ film in the purest sense, comparable in its visual richness to the best of Nic Roeg (one of the best compliments I can think of). The opening dream sequence is beautifully (yet disturbingly) odd, setting the tone of unreality which never lets up, so you’re never quite sure with each successive scene whether it’s a flash back, a dream, a phantasy or a piece of the jig saw offering a glimpse of the linear. The whole film is created it would seem, without any consideration for commerciality, with a virtually pathological vision of the potential horrors of procreation. Disney it is not. Although it does serve to make the excellent Gus Van Sant film ‘Elephant (2003)’ (similar denouement, but with none of the back story) seem Disney-ish in comparison.

The looks of disgust and existential horror on Swinton’s face as she attends the pre natal classes speak volumes. Ramsey’s camera, and the way it lingers on the distended pregnant bellies of the other women reflect Swinton’s inner horror at her own condition. The early scenes involving the new baby show the horrific realities faced by the ambivalent new mother, left to hold a screeching child she wants no part of. Thankfully, the film also shows that it’s not all the ambivalent mother’s fault! Ladle in a large serving of paternal denial, over indulgence and the burying of head in sand and the child’s isolation is complete.

Speaking of the child, what an incredible depiction of a developing sociopath by the two superb young actors! Kudos also to Ramsey for coaxing amazing performances from them, particularly the younger of the two actors, whose facial expressions suggest he was sired by the devil himself. Kevin really is a scary monster from the off it seems. But then with a mother glaring and goading him and telling him how happy she was before he was born, is it any wonder he glares back at her with malevolent interest. Kevin’s look of disdain (a constant from the scenes with the toddler through to the teenage Kevin scenes) seems a true reflection of his mother’s own gaze. Several critics have wondered at the source of the eventual outcome for Kevin, but to me it was clearly charted, each piece of the story clearly clarifying and leading to the next, a straightforward, linear explanation, all roads leading to the climax, as the pieces of the jig saw fall into place.

I would like to point out that I have not read the novel by Lionel Shriver (although I will) so stress that this piece is a reflection of the film. I say this, aware of the fact that the book has its own champions, but I based this article solely on the film.

Don Butler (Nov 2011)


Dogtooth, released in spring 2010 is the second film by Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos. It won the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. For his second film Lanthimos has produced a brilliantly disturbing portrayal of perverse family life, a study of control and parental mismanagement that blends jet black comedy and existential horror seamlessly. In his review of the film in the Guardian Peter Bradshaw states “Dogtooth could be read as a superlative example of absurdist cinema, or possibly something entirely the reverse – a clinically, unsparing piece of psychological cinema”. I couldn’t agree more. The film works on several levels, but it it’s as an unsparing vision of the psychosis at the heart of dysfunctional family life that it grabbed my attention. R.D. Laing would have loved it I felt. Lanthimos cites Cassavetes as one of his directorial heroes, and anyone familiar with the American director’s work will have some idea of the particular type of chilling, everyday madness on display.

The story itself is fairly straightforward. A seemingly well off, middle aged married couple with three children (two girls and a boy, all on the brink of adulthood), exert a perverse and obsessive control over their offspring by not allowing them out beyond the confines of the family home and spacious grounds, and by deliberately feeding them misinformation about pretty much everything. This is designed to control, and perhaps, it is suggested, protect them from the horrors of the world. The reality, of course, is that the parents own grasp on what constitutes appropriate and healthy parenting is mightily tenuous, leading to internal horrors for the children.

 Although not always fully explicit throughout the film, there is an undercurrent of incest and perverse sexuality running through the story that manifests itself both in a casually disturbing way and ultimately in graphic displays of the horrors of misplaced sexuality. The three child like and sexually confused young adults spend much of their time in a big swimming pool in the grounds of the house, but this presents a feeling of emotional entrapment, rather than being a pleasant recreational space. The three physically healthy and attractive looking siblings are obviously far from healthy emotionally. The lack of real information about the world outside and any kind of loving emotional education creates a mood of paranoia and impending disaster. The children are disciplined randomly, absurdly and cruelly. Psychotic behaviour becomes manifest in the siblings, exhibited violently, without warning. Sibling envy is expressed with extreme violence that is tolerated by the parents. The feeling evoked in the viewer is of an impending storm brewing. A potential catalyst for this slow burn to emotional meltdown is the only character we see from outside the family. The coolly sadistic paterfamilias, in a typical display of his warped reasoning, introduces an employee from his workplace, Christina, into the family dynamic. Her role is to provide sexual release for the son. Her motivation is seemingly money, but a growing curiosity and a sense of her own power seem to keep her coming back. Eventually her own dysfunctional behaviour propels her into the role of sexual and political agent provocateur. She broadens her own remit and develops her sexual part in proceedings beyond that contracted, beginning a relationship with one of the daughters, based on a trading of sexual favours for absurd trinkets. These scenes capture the absurd use of language in the film, as Christina demands her “lick” as reward for the paltry gift. The young girl is so deprived of both information and love that she complies. But things are never given their proper name or meaning, even by the outsider. In a darkly comic moment, as a result of the sexual bargaining, the daughter is able to gain access to something from the outside world, a video of a ‘Rocky’ film, and the confusion and recrimination that this creates is both comic and disturbing in equal measure.

The denouement of the film literally spells (spills) out in blood the intended messages in this Modern Greek tragedy. The failure of the nuclear family is writ large. The child is not only hopelessly ill equipped to enter the world alone, but begins the journey into adulthood as its own worst enemy, full of fear and incomprehension, with self harm as the main mode of expression. The elder of the two daughters, after a macabre coming of age ritual acted out in typically perverse fashion with the whole family, decides she is ready to flee the nest, but based on what we have seen of her upbringing, she is wholly ill prepared to venture out into the world alone, and her own preparation for this event, that she so understandably desires, is a startlingly brutal episode of self harm. I won’t spoil the ending but suffice to say the event is a brilliantly chilling twist on a tale rooted in classic Greek Tragedy well known to psychoanalysts.     

Don Butler 2011    

The Selfish Giant: ‘A permanent state of winter’

In Clio Barnard’s excellent recent film ‘The Selfish Giant’ we are shown one example of the terrible effects of proximity to maternal depression on young children. In the film schoolboy friends Arbor and Swifty are drawn together and get themselves into trouble both in and out of school as a result of both their family’s social status and perhaps because of the fact that both have clinically depressed mothers who are unable to manage their children as a result. Both households are victims of modern day financial difficulties and there is not enough money to feed everyone or pay the bills. Practical reason enough for the women to feel depressed. On top of this Arbor’s father is not around, Swifty’s is, but is unemployed and clearly struggling to maintain his role as provider or role model. The boys get deeper into trouble in every aspect of their escalating young lives and their depressed mothers are seemingly unable to manage them emotionally or practically; and so the boys unconsciously take on the role of breadwinners for their families, trying to provide something of sustenance for their depressed mothers, and are both confused and distressed when their actions are not met with approval.

On the one hand the mothers cannot afford to turn down the ill- gotten gains the boys have suddenly come by, whilst simultaneously realising that something is not only wrong, but frighteningly beyond their control. The boys blunder on into a dangerous adult world long before they are equipped to do so as a result of their confused need to become providers, with fatal consequences. This superb film shows (amongst many other things) the personal and social havoc that can result in the case of proximity to depression, and how destructive such depression can be if not managed. The boys are desperate to do something good for their mothers, who are understandably depressed given their circumstances, but this need drives them into a world in which they are too young to survive, grasping in vain in the dark (an apt analogy for depression), seeking an answer the adults have not been able to provide.

Don Butler - 2013

'Tracks' (2013)

Directed by John Curran (The Kings Speech) and starring the reliably excellent Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre, Alice in Wonderland) and Adam Driver ( HBO’s Girls, Frances Ha) ‘Tracks’ sets out its stall as a rites of passage adventure into one young woman’s personal heart of darkness. Our young heroine, played with a stone faced mixture of equal parts misanthropy and stubbornness sets herself the seemingly crazy and potentially suicidal task of walking 2000 miles across the Australian out-back with only a black Labrador and three camels for company. As with many movies the critics in the mainstream media often seemed to miss the big ‘Why?’ at the heart of the story that psychoanalysts are in constant search of. The film and true life story behind it were well praised by the majority of critics and generally labelled ‘inspirational’ and ‘extraordinary,’ whilst seeming to consider the backdrop to Robyn’s (the young female protagonist) quest to be a straightforward tale of quirky enterprise or even a feminist fable pure and simple as Robyn becomes ‘The Camel Lady’ in folk lore; although to my mind the real life story that provided the content and context of the film is a psycho drama with a clear rationale, one young adults ‘acting out’ of unresolved family/object relationship issues on a grand scale.

One of the strengths of Marion Nelson’s script, based on Robyn Davidson’s autobiographical account of her journey, is the fact that whilst it gives enough background material to make it clear to analytic investigation as to the ‘Why?’ in question, this is done in fragmented dream sequences and hazy memories that do provide the answers to Robyn’s modus operandi, but without spelling it out too clearly or consciously. Those in the outside world have little understanding of her undertaking and accept it at face value with a collective shrug of disbelief, seemingly prepared to stand back and participate in some collective head scratching and facilitation of this young woman’s potential suicide mission; although having said that she is met with much kindness also by protective, concerned spirits, who offer her spiritual/emotional/practical support and advice that will prove invaluable and life saving. The book and the film both bear some resemblance to 2008’s ‘Into the Wild’ (a film that also had a literary origin and dealt with difficult family/object relations precipitating a journey into a harsh exterior world in preference to the security of human society, both protagonists preferring isolation in the wild to human contact as a result of their histories) although I found ‘Tracks’ to require more thinking from me as a viewer, which I preferred, despite having hugely enjoyed ‘Into the Wild’ at the time.

‘Tracks’ shows us in microcosm, the massive ‘acting out’ of a young person let down by her environment. It’s a teenage ‘sulk’ on a grand scale. Robyn’s retreat from the world is both a reaction to her Mothers suicide and the subsequent loss of her Father, who went ‘walkabout’ himself (he became an explorer who put his personal safety at risk in dangerous terrain and went missing) as a way to deal with his own grief. So by turning her back on the world that let her down she is rejecting both the community that was unable to sustain/save her Mother and simultaneously heading out in search of her missing Father, who to her young mind, may still be ‘out there’ somewhere.

Initially she is seen to reject any friendly advances from her own (white) people beyond what she will negotiate and work hard for, wanting nothing in return other than what she has earned. Friends, family, workmates, employers seem to offer her nothing of emotional sustenance and she turns her back on them all in her quest to find the ghosts of her missing parents and herself. She does welcome the Aboriginal people and her reluctant and appropriately aggressive camels (as a reflection of her own inner condition) into her interior world, but these clearly signify her fantasy of something akin to a dark otherness that she is in search of, the shadow/oblivion she is seeking and needs to integrate to become whole; an antidote to the familiar that has let her down. The charismatic National Enquirer photographer Rick (Driver), who is clearly smitten with her from the beginning of their friendship/romance/professional relationship, is seen to irritate her and she believes he is compromising the ‘purity’ of her quest to exclude human ( i.e. Australian settlers/European/North American) contact in her journey into the wild. However, as the story develops and he makes himself more and more useful to her both practically and relationally in her journey it becomes obvious to both Robyn and us that she cannot after all survive alone as she had dreamed, and that the plain truth is we all need some practical support and emotional sustenance from other human beings. Rick gradually makes himself indispensable and although initially irritated and hostile, by the end of the story she has accepted him and opened herself to him both physically and emotionally.

This is not a straightforward romance and is not dealt with over romantically in the usual commercial movie mode thankfully. Despite the fact that at one point in the story the two do appear to have sex (this is suggested rather than acted out graphically), this is played out more as an awakening in Robyn that she does have basic human needs, rather than any kind of suggested flowering of romance; her gradual acceptance of him as a potential ‘good object’ is more about the need for friendship and emotional sustenance (which she receives from an ‘elder’ Aboriginal man also, which proves to be equally sustaining in a Father/Daughter like way; she also meets and is cared for, even loved in the moment, by a kindly, elderly white settler couple who pass for surrogate parents briefly and perhaps critically, as she is close to oblivion at this point in the narrative and may be seen to have been saved by this experience. There is a moving scene where the old woman bathes Robyn and washes her hair as if she were a much younger child, something she seems to intuit is the case emotionally speaking, and Robyn accepts this with a quiet, childlike passivity ). There is a growing acceptance that she cannot survive alone, particularly in what passes for a savage metaphorical hinterland, the actual ‘outback’ of the Australian wilderness, which serves perfectly as her own dusty, dangerous unconscious world.

‘Tracks’ may not be a bona fide great film, but it is a very good one, and it provides us with a clear and moving message about the need to find good (internal) objects along the way when we have lost sight of those that should have sustained us but were unfortunately unable to do so. Robyn, in the act of rejecting the world and casting herself out into an unforgiving void that could have swallowed her up, finds that she can allow herself to be loved after all and can learn to love again herself, once she has accepted this fact. She ultimately seems genuinely relieved to complete her journey and re-embrace life as she dives into the brilliant blue healing sea at the end of the film; journeys end, and also a new beginning.

Don Butler – May 2014  

Tim Burtons ‘Alice in Wonderland’:

Linda Woolverton’s impeccably feminist reboot of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’ stories gives us a big clue as to its therapeutic intentions in the opening scene when Alice’s soon to be deceased father tells a concerned Alice that, though she may be mad, ‘all the best people are’. Although in future scenes and throughout Alice’s darkest hours in Won(Un)derland her father is physically absent, it appears she has internalised him as a good and sustaining figure. His act of ‘good enough’ parenting sustains Alice in her battle with the dark forces of both the real world (as she has to face down the possibility of an unwelcome marriage alone, in the face of intense family pressure and expectation) and within her fragmented psyche as represented by her journey into the collective unconscious represented by Burtons topographical battle fields and archetypal fairy-tale settings, which also contain the fragmented (Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee to name but one/two) aspects of Alice’s inner world.

Alice presents herself to us as a fascinating potential patient with her admission that she has one recurring dream (or nightmare). Any analysts dream for sure. However, despite everything thrown in her way (and although it may take us awhile to realise how resolute she is) Alice quickly establishes herself as a feminist icon and self- determinist for the ages with her bravery and wilfulness, even when in doubt and under fire. As early as the prearranged proposal scene when dancing with the obnoxious suitor Hamish, Alice proves herself superior to him when asked ‘Do I amuse you?’ she answers unequivocally and undiplomatically ‘No!’

Alice also informs us early on that she is ‘confused, I need time to think’. This statement would hearten any psychoanalytic thinker. Please do go ahead and take all the time you like, I found myself thinking! But what she is exhibiting is not only that she is ready to have a good, hard look at all that may befall her and challenge her sense of self (‘She’s not the right Alice’) but is already in touch with both her personal and the collective unconscious by her ability to see archetypal figures from Underland before she gets there and after she has left (the White Rabbit, Absinthe the Caterpillar/Butterfly).

Alice would be a good (i.e. self- examining) subject for any analyst, asking existential questions from the off; ‘How can I be the wrong Alice if this is my dream?’ I view Absinthe the Caterpillar (questioning Alice here) as the ‘clever’ analyst, trying to impart his superior knowledge onto his subject and questioning her identity, who retorts spiritedly ‘I ought to know who I am!’   A few scenes on she exclaims herself to be ‘Absolutely Alice’ when tiring of being questioned as to her identity. Absinthe, puffing on his opium pipe, brought Freud to my mind, puffing smoke from his ubiquitous cigar onto his patients, as he was known to do, a cheeky evocation of the presence of psychoanalysis by Burton perhaps?

At this point in the narrative she calls upon her internalised father to give her strength when she evokes his words, ‘It’s only a dream, nothing can hurt me’. But clearly, this visit to Underland, is more than ‘just a dream’.

Fear of madness, or ‘half madness’ is never far away, and when we 1st encounter control freak and Kleinian study of ‘Envy’ the Red Queen, her demands to behead all and sundry gives us a strong sense of impending psychosis and literal ‘splitting’ in twain. Alice herself discovers that not all of her tricks will work and that she will need to fight and find other weapons to survive in Underland, such as when pinching herself, she does not awaken and cries ‘All I want to do is wake up from this dream’, a statement which most therapists would recognise, as paraphrased by the majority of patients.

Although she is a fighter, the battle is not so easily won and she must fight on. Even her allies undermine her sense of reality in the journey, such as the Hatter and his two tea time companions who seem to represent the opposite to the ‘three wise men’ who visit the infant Jesus; she is aided and abetted by ‘the three mad men’. The Hatter does offer her protection however, as well as a sense of recognition which suggests a developing sense of therapeutic gain. There seems to be some ‘mirroring’ going on between the two and they take turns as therapist/patient. He embodies the therapist as ‘half mad’ man, evoking Jung’s admonition that as therapists we must go half mad ourselves before we can understand our patients inner worlds.

The Hatter’s constant change of accent from slightly effete English to borderline psychotic Scots suggests his own schizoid identity struggles and suggested to me the split between the English and Scottish on our Island as a potential schizoid study. Depp alternates fey English charm and Scots aggression and journeys from childlike innocence via fairy tale horror and back by way of surreal madman in a compelling and confusing study. Most of the critics in the media when referring to this portrayal in reviews of the film seemed unable to engage with it beyond seeing it as an eccentric act on Depp’s part but as an analyst I feel the need to dig deeper into the origins of this phenomenon and it clearly suggests schizoid apparatus at play to me and makes Depp’s performance richer and more extraordinary in my eyes. The character of the Hatter is portrayed as a trauma victim, as the wartime flashback suggests, again deepening his personality. The critics in general were critical of the role of the Hatter being extended to accommodate Depp’s star status, but again I feel they miss the point and I see the back story of the Hatter as a bonus, rich in analytic possibility and metaphor. I also picked up on a Lacanian sense of inbuilt ennui in terms of his predestined likelihood, as a Hatter, to at some point, go mad, thus fulfilling his own pre-destiny. The more I watch the film, the greater I find both Depp’s performance and the writing and direction which supports the multi dimensionality of this semi tragic (half mad) character. Depp brings pathos worthy of Chaplin to his performance. It is the Hatter that Alice clearly struggles to leave behind at the end upon her return from Underland.

Returning to Alice, she is told mid -way through the story that based upon previous incarnations she has lost her ‘muchness’ but it is not much further on that she clearly takes charge of her destiny and actively participates in what appears to me to be therapeutic gain as well as story development, as she cleverly infiltrates the castle of the Red Queen, finds the weapon she needs to complete her quest in Underland and befriends the beast Bandersnatch with whom she engages in more mutual healing! In the midst of this she says to herself in open defiance ‘Lost my muchness have I?’ Her first act on entering the Red Queens domain is to free the hedgehog/croquet ball from its humiliating serfdom, which can be viewed as an act of kindness on the one hand, or the continuation of her therapeutic work on the other, as she unpicks the schizoid elements she finds one at a time. This work is part of her relationship with the Hatter, who we can now view as her shadow perhaps, and her support of him an integration of it. She reigns him in when his madness gets out of control and threatens to upset the quest. Presenting at his most troubled, screaming ‘It’s too crowded in here’ (meaning his head) and questioning his sanity, she becalms him and uses her father’s expression as balm. ‘The best people truly are mad’. Alice is becoming healer to those dangerous and mad elements within herself (Hatter/Bandersnatch) and ergo to her whole self.

Ultimately though, she must still face down and integrate the darkest aspect of her shadow side before she can safely leave Underland; i.e. to slay the Jabberwocky. Again, many of the mainstream critics took umbrage with the fact that at the end of the film Burton/Woolverton include a battle scene where the heroine is obliged to fight and slay the monster, seeing this as a cheap device to satiate those who thrill seek, bloated upon too many ‘Lord of the Rings’ films with their ubiquitous battle scenes. To me this ending makes perfect sense however and works wonderfully as a metaphor for Alice’s need to face down the archetypal schizoid elements within her psyche before she can return from Underland and back into the world and full mental health.

The slightly neurotic (but essentially, despite her own borderline possibilities, a force for good) White Queen needs a champion to face down her own shadow, the psychotically envious Red Queen’s monster, Jabberwocky; Alice gradually accepts this is a battle she must take on. We must face our own demons the story tells us, and Alice faces up to this ultimate challenge so that she can be free. We see both huge bravery and therapeutic gain engendered in the final act as our heroine fights her biggest foe; her own shadow in the form of a nightmarish beast. She ultimately proves that she is the ‘real’ Alice, and that her ‘muchness’ is very much intact. This casts Alice as a Jungian archetype, a mythic heroine, completing her destiny/individuation. By donning armour at the end of her time in Underland she symbolises the completion of her quest and earned strength. She is the knight errant of archetypal myth. The killing of the Jabberwocky can be viewed as Alice’s Individuation. Destiny fulfilled as a result of her battle with all of her inner demons and synthesis with her animus. Muchness manifest, in other words.

Don Butler – April 2014    

Jane Campion’s ‘Portrait of a lady’

A journey of an idealistic, innocent romantic, into the heart of darkness

Having decided I wanted to use Jane Campion’s film for an analytic film study after watching the film on dvd many years after having first seen (and loved) it in the cinema, I watched the ‘making of’ documentary and was taken by these words of Campion’s, which sounded to me like the utterings of a patient in therapy, and I imagined Campion discussing the process of making the film from an emotional perspective with her own (imagined) therapist. This gives us a good starting point as analysts, to get to consider the psychological aspects of both the story and the processes of those who brought it to the screen.


‘Isobel was someone I knew at a very intimate level. Isobel was like my-self a romantic addict. When I was young and falling in love I very seriously did a huge con job on myself, occasionally with the most unsuitable people. And so it was a great revelation to me that I knew her on such a close, personal basis, that I felt permission to get in there and play with her and be involved with James’ story. Very playfully, and at the same time very seriously, and dangerously’.  

This statement shows how emotionally involved the artist can become in the production of a piece and how helpful it is in creating a powerful work of art to be psychically in tune with the material. Something well worth considering it seems to me when thinking about this particular work. Nicole Kidman herself, says of playing Isobel (also in the documentary) how hard it is as an actor to play such a role; she describes Isobel as someone who is in an ‘emotionally abusive relationship’ and says that as an actress she has to spend months experiencing ‘shame and humiliation’. So the key words and phrases we are hearing from director and star give us a good indication of the emotions at play at the heart of the story. Danger; abuse; shame; humiliation; self -delusion (as in ‘I did a huge con-job on myself’).

Campion’s films are seen to be feminist studies of the spiritual journeys of young women and whilst reading reviews of the film while doing my research I noticed that more than one commentator mentioned that all of her films could be called ‘Portrait of a Lady’. I come to the film less interested in the feminist politics (as interesting and valid as they are; but since most of the reviews on line tend to focus on the feminist rather than the psychological aspect I refer you to the internet for the feminist perspective) but more concerned with the psychological undertow. The book and film are both hugely focused on psychological complexity and the workings of human desire; the film less so of course, as interior worlds are harder to explore on film than they are on the page; although we do get treated to some stirring insights into Isobel’s fantasy and dream world through silent visuals, particularly with the sexual fantasy involving her suitors and the Daliesque nightmare view of her husband. The film is akin to classic horror in many ways which creates a mood for the viewer and we are encouraged, I think, to view Osmond and his terrifying accomplice (personified chillingly by the excellent Barbara Hershey) as vampires. They are never filmed in sunlight, and are seen to deliberately avoid it; a tantalising clue as to their nature. Malkovich’s performance is truly terrifying in a markedly non pantomime baddie type way, which makes his character even scarier and more real. As we know from encounters with real people in our consulting rooms, people do suck the lifeblood out of each other and so this is not a fictional evil, but real personality disorder at play, ruining the lives of many, a tainting of the living from the interior voids of the walking dead (spiritually).

Isobel is, as expected from Campion, a hugely complex character. She practises a form of masochistic self –imposed sexual repression, yet fantasises about orgies with those she keeps at arms- length, whilst marrying a passive aggressive sexless monster who is happy to imprison his only daughter in a nunnery for daring to pursue her own will, thus guaranteeing a barren existence, both emotionally and physically. He is not interested in the living and so Isobel becomes another museum exhibition. Her journey is in some ways that of an idealistic romantic making the wrong choices (as described by Campion) who finds herself in Hell, consorting with vampires, although I would suggest it is much more complex than this reading and her interior world at least is more overtly complicit than we might first think. Why otherwise would she be drawn to such a dark couple, completing a deeply disturbed ménage a trios? The journey from the sunlit English countryside to the dark Mausoleum like spaces of Italy acts as a vibrant metaphor, and it is a journey she seems to make wilfully. There is much of Eve’s fall and potential Paradise Lost about Isobel’s story and we are left contemplating the universal Why? Why did she give herself up to Osmond, someone that everyone else could see from a mile off was a monster, or to quote Campion ‘the most unsuitable’ of people. Does she unconsciously (despite her idealistic proclamations to want to remain a free spirit and experience all the world has to offer) long to be the gilded bird in a cage that she becomes. Why do we choose ‘the most unsuitable people’ and give in to psychic enslavement? The question may not be fully answered in the film but remains universally pertinent.

Don Butler – June 2014













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AGIP is a registered charity (Number 1083030). It was established in 1974 to provide psychoanalytic psychotherapy services and a training programme.

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