Sunday, May 30, 2010

Freud - The Pursuit of the Unknown

John Huston often made films that dealt with the subject of a pursuit. In Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) it was three men trying to find gold in the Mexican hills. In The Asphalt Jungle (1950), he detailed a group of low-life criminals determined to make one last major heist, while in Fat City (1972), two down and outs try and pursue a meager life in the world of small-time boxing. In The African Queen (1951), it's all about getting down the river to safety and in Moulin Rouge (1952), it was the obsession of Toulouse-Lautrec trying to fit into Paris society, despite his physical deformities.

Some of Huston's characters succeed in their pursuit, while many fail. But clearly the quest or chase of the principals' goals is what fascinated Huston throughout his long career. The search for the truth - or perhaps better stated, the presumed truth - is what makes Freud (1962) such a captivating film in the director's canon (The film is sometimes referred to as Freud: The Secret Passion).

This is a serious look at the beginnings of Sigmund Freud's search into the darkness of the human mind; soon after Freud (earnestly portrayed by Montgomery Clift) teams up with Joseph Breuer, who would be his partner for years, we are introduced to a young patient of Breuer named Cecily (Susannah York) who suffers from extreme neurosis. In her case, she cannot walk, as it is up to Breuer to discover why this young woman is so mentally tortured. (This character is based upon the famous real life Anna O. that Freud documented in his works.)

Breuer has been working with Cecily for a short time, but believes he must turn her care over to Freud, as it seems that she has developed a crush on Breuer. Freud takes over, first hypnotizing her and then in later sessions, he decides against this, opting merely to talk with her to discover her inner secrets.

What he discovers as he learns more of her early life is that she loved her father, who was willing to let his daughter become curious about many new things in her life. As her mother would scold her for putting on makeup (this is compared to a prostitute who paints her face), she is naturally more comfortable with her father's care than with her mother's scorn.

Freud meanwhile learns things about his chlldhood, as he had problems accepting the meek nature of his father, especially when verbally abused about being a Jew. Freud turned to his mother for comfort to make his upbringing more bearable.

Thus Freud and Cecily are linked in their passion for the parent of the opposite sex - Cecily in love with her father and Freud looking to his mother for caresses. "Truth is a mirror upside down," is Freud's explanation; for him there is sexuality in childhood.

The movie goes into great detail abut Cecily's case; it is a good 40-50% of the film and it is fascinating. Originally penned by the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (and then reworked by two others), the screenplay is serious and detailed. This is not the kind of movie that would play today, as the pace is too slow for modern audiences, but I was intrigued by the story and by Huston's careful and literal direction.

He does give us a few dream sequences - most notably one in which Freud is dragged - via a rope tied to his waist - into a deep cave. The symbolism here seems clear - he is going back into the womb via the umbilical cord - but this is played out with great skill and originality, especially in Douglas Slocombe's excellent black and white photography, which is quite edgy in this scene (negative images as well as out of focus shots).

In the end, Freud has created his Oedipus complex, but is shouted down by his peers during a reading of this paper. Worse yet, he is turned down by Breuer, who respects his diligence and compassion, but cannot agree on the notion of childhood sexuality. Another of Huston's characters has found his meaning in a pursuit; while others mock him, he does not fail. He knows that his work has only begun. This makes him a man who is firmly rooted in John Huston's world. He may be looking more at the end results than the means, as did the gold seekers in Sierra Madre, but the goal, the journey, the pursuit, is what defines his existence.