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The Passenger or the search for identity (FW31)

Representation of loss in European cinema
Filmwaves 35

With psychoanalyst Andrea Sabbadini we explore the second volume in a series on psychoanalytic reflections of European cinema, and specifically the theme of Loss in cinema. (full article)

Marco Zigiotti – In our previous interview we discussed psychoanalysis and film in relation to your book The Couch and the Silver Screen (FW). Can you please introduce this new book, entitled Projected Shadows. Psychoanalytic Reflections on the Representation of Loss in European Cinema, for us?

Andrea Sabbadini – Well, why European cinema, for a start. European cinema has always been my main concern, I can very much enjoy a lot of Hollywood movies or from other countries, but I always had the impression that European cinema had a particular fascination for us psychoanalysts insofar as its films tend to focus more on character than plot, more on putting across a message (and I am aware of generalising here) about ourselves, who we are, how we relate to each other, how we feel, rather than indulging in special effects. Another reason is that European films are poorly distributed in comparison with Hollywood ones.

 

Most of the chapters in the book are the result of lectures, debates and panel discussions presented at the third of our European Psychoanalytic Film Festivals which took place in 2005. The idea of loss is very central to psychoanalysis. Loss is part of our life, whether it is the loss of a person close to us or the loss of a physiological function, or the loss of an ideal, hope, something we have identified with. Loss is a source of despair and grief but it is also what allows us to move on and grow. So, I don’t want to emphasize only the negative aspects of loss, because it is also a necessary condition for us to change. We can see the whole of our development as a series of losses, for example. Many films, practically all dramas and often even comedies, represent loss in one form or another. The films that we happened to show at this festival had a number of other themes in them, but we identified loss as the central one.

MZ - Would you like to say something about loss from a psychoanalytic point of view, before we touch on the films themselves?

AS – There is not a unified psychoanalytic theory about loss, there are different ways of approaching it, one that is particularly important derives from the writings of John Bowlby and his attachment theory. Bowlby considered attachment, separation and loss as crucial aspects of human existence. Of course Freud also wrote about loss and his paper on Mourning and Melancholia is of great interest to us. Freud relates the process of grief for the loss of the real person (mourning) with another process which he described as melancholia (depression), which relates to the loss of an internal representation. During childhood we already attempt at mastering loss and separation, the peek-a-boo game small children enjoy is an example. Indeed control is of course very important when talking about loss, because it’s when we feel at the mercy of something that is bigger than us, we cannot stop anyone from dying, although we feel we could have done something - and indeed guilt is a frequent component in the experience of mourning. The process seems to go through different phases for different people, often there is an initial phase of denial, then there is grief and despair and sometimes there is the experience of anger for having been abandoned, while rationally understanding that the person who died did not want to abandon us.1 All this is quite normal but recovery may take some time. There are also pathological forms of mourning, whenever the loss is not accepted, and leading to long term depression or to the inability to come to an end of the period of mourning. Theoretically we could say that people who cannot accept a loss are people who have never established a mature relationship with the lost person.

MZ – In the book it is somewhat suggested that film is a way to work through loss.

AS – Yes, and I think it is something more general about works of art, they all involve a loss of something because in order to create something you have to make choices that involve losing other things. If you are a writer you select certain words but you leave out others which you could have included. I think this is certainly true in films, you select certain scenes, think of the job of an editor: he has to cut things out, he has to assemble them in a different order from that in which they were shot, and scenes present in the director’s cut may be deleted when the final producet is released in cinemas. This, however, could be the positive aspect of loss, by cutting things out you create a better work. But you are referring to the idea that one of the unconscious reasons why people go to see movies is because by observing the characters struggle on the screen the audience can work through some of their own internal difficulties and conflicts, including those about loss. And it is not unusual for someone who has suffered a loss to find comfort in a work of art, a piece of music, a book or a film. One reason is that one doesn’t feel alone, in a sense one can share his or her pain with the work of art and that’s particularly true of films. But I want to make it clear that although films may have a therapeutic function, and there are approaches using films as a help for their clients to support their state of mourning, the practice of psychoanalysis is a different thing. We do not recommend films to our patients, though they often talk about films and use them to describe something about themselves. The analyst would then treat a film talked about in a session in the same way that he would treat any other bit of analytic material, like a dream or a memory or a fantasy.

MZ – Are you then saying that the experience of the artist making choices, and therefore experiencing some kind of loss, may affect the final work of art?

AS – Yes, the choice implies losing something else. Interestingly there are people who have serious difficulty in making choices, and I think that it is not necessarily because they cannot choose whether to buy a pair of shoes or a pair of sandals, but because choosing one involves giving up the other, and that is why they find it difficult.

MZ – Another interesting sentence I found in your book is that film is a way to recover a lost object (person).

AS – By identifying with what happens on the screen we can recover something that we thought we had lost. There is something comforting about that, also when we consider that works of art outlive us. That’s also why people throughout history have tried to leave a sign that survives them, starting with the painting of cavemen…

MZ – One of your book’s chapters deals with the representation of the Shoah in Eastern European films and the inability to mourn that event.

AS – There is something about mass genocide that is beyond representation. No film, work of art or literature can deal with the enormity of the cruelty of mass murder like the one committed during WW II. That in a sense must be accepted as it is beyond words and images. However, you should not stop there but use whatever tools you have available in order to preserve its memory and the trauma connected to it. We know that one of the most painful experiences for survivors of concentration camps, not just the Nazi ones, was the denial of the experience, of not being believed or taken seriously. The memory needs to survive. Germany is still traumatised now, and more so than any other nation, about what happened in the Nazi era. How a loss has come about, wether through natural causes or traumatic events and cruelty perpetrated by other human beings, is significant in relation to how one would respond to it. In the case of the Shoah this is not really possible, I think, but through an attempt to represent what is ultimately un-representable, we may understand it a little better: what sort of processes were taking place? why people behaved in a certain way? some films may allow us to get close to it. I naively believe that knowing why something has happened may help not to repeat it. I say naively because I am well aware of the tendency, or of the compulsion, of human beings to repeat past mistakes.

MZ – In the chapter by Ralf Zwiebel which explores Christian Petzold’s Wolfsburg (Germany, 2003) there is a reference to the empathic other and to reparation. In the film the character kills a child in a car accident and doesn’t stop, and he gets involved with the mother of the child who is actually looking for the person who killed her son. This character is emotionally distant and we cannot get close to him. In the essay this is linked to the analytical situation in which you can either get close to the patient or not. So, how do you relate to a character who is not empathic? It made me think of a possible parallel between the therapist and the clients, and the spectator and the character on screen. The character keeps you at a distance like maybe a client can keep you away or resist analysis.

AS – The author suggested to look at films as if they were patients, which is his own view of this, but it is true that we do develop with the film a kind of transference realationship.

MZ – What is a ‘transference relationship’?

AS – There are different ways to see the relationship between psychoanalysis and cinema, and one way is to see a film as a quasi-patient or the symptom of the author, and one is that of focusing on the possible dialogue between the two disciplines and how they interact with each other. So, in the first case a director who hasn’t quite worked thorough his relationship with his mother would put in his films, either directly or often more subtly, something unresolved about that relationship, and thus using the film to work through his own conflict. If we move back to this idea of transference... the psychoanalyst focuses his attention on the very special dynamic processes that take place in the relationship between him and the analysand, whereby the latter re-experiences and re-lives in the relationship with the analyst all the patterns and ways of behaving, all the scenarios that belong one’s earlier life and specifically the relationship with one’s parents. Of course, now you can observe and become aware of what happened and possibly overcome the obstacles. It is also important to consider the counter-transference, which is the rather irrational feelings that the analyst may feel towards the analysand. These processes are present in all relationships in fact, the difference is that in psychoanalysis we focus our attention on them, while in normal relationships we don’t. Sometimes we develop this kind of relationship, based very much on our own fantasies, imaginations, unconscious wishes, desires and fears, with objects and works of art. Films lend themselves particularly well to this kind of projections and transferences.

MZ – As an audience you are then in a position that lets you experience something similar. You have a character on the screen and you develop this sort of transference and counter-transference. Psychoanalysis may explain how you relate to the character; however, each individual in the audience perceives the film in different ways.

AS – If you ask different people about the same film they will tell you different stories and they will pick out different aspects of the plot, or of the characters. Indeed if you watch the same film a number of times you will notice yourself that it’s a slightly different film every time, because we are different and we look at it at a different time in our life and notice different things which matter to us at that time. What I was trying to say is that what we perceive is very often based on unconscious, rather irrational mechanism - not a logical perception, but rather something which is mediated by our past, our experience, our personality and so on, so much so that when we see a love scene inevitably we conjure up memories about love relationships we might have had or we might not have had, wanted to have, and so on. And we may be upset by small details that remind us of something upsetting in our life. A whole emotional experience unique to us, which probably does not touch other people in the audience in the same way. Psychoanalysis has a lot to offer in terms of this kind of understanding, the screen is more than a screen, it is also a mirror, because we see ourselves in it.

MZ – So you agree that there is a parallel with the analytic situation, where the audience will experience feelings caused by those of the film characters.

AS – We don’t want to take that parallel too far, but there is an intensity in watching certain films, identifying or disindentifying with characters and situations, that bear some remarkable similarity with the psychoanalytic relationship.

MZ – If the analyst has to deal with his own counter-transference in order to be clear about what’s going on, what can we learn from the psychoanalytic practice? Is it me? Is it my stuff or is it the character’s?

AS – As an analysand you benefit from forgetting that you are in analysis and allow yourself to be…. just yourself. This allows you to free associate and reach a deeper level of your psyche, avoiding the internal censorship. Well, in the same way when you sit in a comfortable armchair in the cinema you can enjoy the film without reflecting too much on the actual process.

MZ – If you are the analysand, but if you are the analyst?

AS – As an analyst you also have to let yourself go to what Freud called a ‘free floating attention’, something which also applies to the spectator who has to let the film take him wherever the story goes. Of course as an analyst you also need to reflect on it, you can’t just allow to let it happen without some conscious reflection on those unconscious processes that you have allowed yourself to experience. So, it’s a combination, a balancing act of unconscious relaxation and conscious concentration. This in a way is what a film critic may do, but not necessarily a film spectator.

MZ- All of this can happen in relation to a character-based rather than to a plot-based film...

AS – I think that it can be possible to write something psychoanalytically interesting about action or other types of movies, but personally I find that films that focus on the internal lives and emotional vicissitudes of characters are more conducive to an interesting psychoanalytic exploration.

MZ – This is even more relevant if we talk about loss in documentaries or in films where there is no easy identification with one of the characters.

AS – I agree, and very often films which may represent mass events, like disaster movies, focus on a restricted number of characters from a group – let’s say from the passengers of an airplane – and they follow them, so you can identify with them as prototypes.

MZ – There is an interesting chapter by Ian Christie in your book, on ‘reverse narration’.

AS – Yes, when the narrative seems to go backward rather than forward. Not simply as flashbacks, as a memory, inverting the course of time by representing something going gradually backwards. For instance, Five Times Two (Ozon, 2004) is made up of five scenes and presents the story of a couple. The first scene is when the couple are asking for a divorce, then there is a scene where they are fighting, then it’s the episode when they get married, and then when they first met each other. So you already know the end, but what becomes exciting is to find out the causes of how it has developped to that end. With the spectator realizing what’s happening, he is in a completely different state of mind, it is about the how we experience the film rather than the what we do. Think about Hitchcock’s Vertigo: you know what has happened but Scottie does not; at some point we are shown, in a way we go backstage, what has actually happened. The tension is no longer in guessing what might have happened, but to see whether and how Scottie will find out. So, the relationship of the character to the film changes completely.

MZ – You mentioned that you recently wrapped up another European Psychoanalytic Fil Festival, can you say something about it?

AS - Following the third festival from which we extracted material for the book Projected Shadow we had another festival last November where the focus was on children, both children in playful situations and children who have been traumatised. At the festival we had, like in the past, filmmakers and psychoanalysts talking to each other. One film I could mention, and which is relevant to the subject of this interview, is a Portuguese film called Alice which is about the disappearance of a four-year old girl and the search by her parents, especially the father, and his way of dealing with this loss. He gets involved in some sort of obsessional behaviour and places videocameras all around the city with the help of friends who are supposed to turn these machines on and off, and then he watches hours and hours of footage in the hope of finding his daughter. Clearly this is another film about loss and the charcater shows how he deals with the loss of his daughter – he felt he could only express his grief by getting involved with this basically useless activity. It is also an interesting film because it’s about a child but the child is not in the film.

Projected Shadows: Psychoanalytic Reflections on the Representation of Loss in European Cinema

Routledge (2007)