The ideas of Sigmund Freud were primarily intended to influence psychology, and it is certainly the “psychology” label which is best used to define them, but their influence these days extends far beyond this, into all kinds of critical thought. Whilst the idea of Freud as a mere sex-based psychologist is hugely misleading, some of his most influential ideas come to conclusions on sexual and gender development. The most influential and famous of those theories is perhaps “the Oedipus complex” in which a developing child has an age (to put it simply, almost to the point of crudely) to destroy the father in order to possess the mother. It is competition for the mothers affection that causes “normal” gender-identity to develop as the son becomes more like the father through imitation.

Looking at the way critics think, it would appear that there is not a film, book or piece of art in existence that is not open to “Freudian” interpretation – even if the thing in question was written in a pre-Freudian time, which can be problematic. The world of cinema, having only operated after Freud, is however far more ripe for Freudian interpretation – and European cinema of the past fifty years has certainly given us plenty to think about in this respect. Of course, Freud is not the only significant figure whose works can be used to analyse film – for example, the works of Ferdinand De Saussure, who is to linguistics what Freud is to psychoanalysis, are also often applicable to twentieth century European cinema – particularly in the dreamlike Surrealist films which accompanied the artistic movement (for example the films of Luis Bunuel.) There is also scope for reviewing them in the way that we as British viewers interpret subtitles; an act in which language becomes a visual part of the film.
But the field of film analysis, particularly from the Freudian perspective, is vast – were to start?

Perhaps the most Freudian director of recent years is Spain’s Pedro Almodovar, who we shall return to, but there have certainly been others before him who have dealt with Freudian themes.

The great director Francois Truffuat famously said that “before television, people stared at the fire – there has always been a need for moving pictures.” Truffuat was something of a serious student of film, for him cinema is part of cultural civilisation, but also an enhanced version of something more innate – almost like Freud’s theories of religion in “The Future Of An Illusion.” Cinema is Truffuat’s God as it is for many European directors – the beginning of it being a projection of their innermost feelings.
In Truffuat’s celebrated tragi-comedy “Jules Et Jim,” (1962) for example, the title characters both appear to be wrestling with enormous, delayed and projected Oedipus complexes. The film is sometimes interpreted as an allegory of the fractured Europe of the time, but there are some reservations to be held about this particular reading – Truffuat was not a political filmmaker. In fact, he was quite the opposite – he reacted against the social-realist films of the time, wanting to take film back to its pure form. But this does not mean that his films are a fantasy-land of flaw-free characters, hence Jules and Jim’s Oedipus complexes.

When the pair first meet, one is far more confident with women and more sexually mature than the other – Jules learns from Jim by copying him and treating him like a teacher, just like a young boy does with his father when going through the Oedipus complex. When Jeanne Moreau’s character, the powerfully magnetic Catherine, comes into the equation, the cycle of the complex is given free reign to be completed as Catherine takes on a kind of mother role. Both Jules and Jim are attracted to Catherine; over the years she becomes a source of competition for the pair, one knowing that he can only secure her by mimicking the other, as in the Oedipus complex. The relationship between the three of them for much of the film is harmonious as they learn they both have a place in Catherine’s life, almost like the complex resolved. We see nothing of the mens families in the film, and thus know nothing of their background, but it is easy to imagine them as having unresolved Oedipus complexes which Catherine, as a projection of the mother figure, has enabled them to metaphorically solve.

Another Freudian theory which “Jules Et Jim” undergo is that of object-libido (as outlined in his work “On Narcissism”). The “object” in this can also become “object-ideal”, in which those who love them idealises them. For the fictional character, it is easy to be an “object-ideal”- the writer/director can mould them around this, making them easy for other characters to idealise. What is less clear is how much of an “object ideal” would Catherine be if she had been played by another actor, someone other than the physically attractive and theatrically talented Jeanne Moraeau?

If their role is as important as the writer/directors, then Moraeau can be credited for helping to make Catherine a great cinematic emblem of almost every projected Freudian ideal.
In Freud’s influential work “The Future of an Illusion” he posits the idea that a neonate makes a God of is father in order to make sense of a vast, overwhelming world which is difficult to perceive. Jules and Jim may be adults, but the modern world is still overwhelming and confusing – perhaps a point were the idea of the film as a representation of fractured Europe can come into play. In what has become their small world, populated by each other and Catherine, they have two options – one is to make a God-figure out of each other, which to a point Jules does to Jim in the first half of the film. The second is to make a God-figure out of Catherine – but as the Oedipus complex situation has made a “mother-figure” out of her, can she possibly fulfil roles which are more traditionally paternal?

Catherine’s femininity is undeniable, but women are arguably less defensive of their gender-role than men. As the sense of masculine competition between Jules and Jim accelerates, albeit in a latent, largely unseen fashion (fitting with Freudian “hermeneutics of suspicion”) Catherine is happier to treat gender as a plaything. In one of the films most famous scenes, Jules and Jim dress Catherine up as a man (complete with a drawn on moustache, that eternal symbol of masculinity) and the three of them race each other. The very act of racing is typical of masculine competition – are Jules and Jim racing against Catherine, or for her? After all, her masculine look is mere play, which they know will become erased.

Linguistically, there is a faint irony here – the French noun “moustache” is actually a feminine word. In Sausserean terms, the linguistic subject is here completely at odds with its sign, but here the two are made “to fit” as this artificial moustache is feminised by the person it is on.
In primitive terms, it could be said that Jim “wins” Catherine in him and Jules competition, because he is the one who actually has a son with Catherine, passing on his DNA and thus preserving himself. This would also allow the Oedipus complex to begin in his son, which could allow Jim to overcome his. Although everything ends tragically in “Jules et Jim”, in terms of storytelling, Freudian or otherwise, it is rather straightforward. The same can not be said of other influential directors working in Europe at this time, such as Spain’s aforementioned Luis Bunuel – the main contributor to Surrealism in film.

When we think of European or arthouse cinema, our immediate reaction is to think of the French. But the Spanish here have been just as influential, as Bunuel shows (although his France-based work blurs the lines). In recent years, it could be argued that one of the most influential and successful “crossover” directors has been the aforementioned Pedro Almodovar, whose Freudian films have the feel of the melodramatic daytime soaps so beloved by the Spanish, but deal with far more complex and multi-layered themes.

Even though he has been making films which have been successful in his own nation since the late 1970’s, Almodovar first came to attention in the UK in 1999 with “All About My Mother.” Almodovars world is peppered with gender dysphoria and people’s relationships with their mothers, and “All about My Mother” is certainly a typically representative film of his. The relationship between the “mother” of the title and her teenage son Esteban is intimate and affectionate; perhaps his Oedipus complex is not overcome, and she as an adoring mother actually revels in this. But the situation is more complex than this. For the Oedipus complex to be experienced in the first place, the father must be present – Esteban never knew his father, believing him to have died when he was an infant. As a result, then, Esteban cannot undergo the “normal” Oedipus complex process and thus shortcuts to a direct attachment to his mother and his mother alone.

It is very early on in the film when Esteban is killed after being hit by a car. This informs the rest of the films story as Manuela, his mother, sets out to overcome her grief and deal with his death. Whilst grief is obviously a universal theme, it is also one open to Freudian readings, as something which he actively deals with in his essay “Mourning and Melancholia”, a study of the theme. For Freud, mourning is, logically, the loss of the object-libido. This leads to a withdrawing of the individual libido; withdrawing from the world. This is completely at turned around in “All About My Mother” – instead of withdrawing from the world, Manuela makes herself more visible than ever in the world, even returning to the stage through a series of coincidental, intriguing events.

Eventually, this series of events leads Manuela back to Esteban’s father, a pre-op transsexual named Lola. This makes the late Esteban’s situation even more intriguing – if he had known his father, rather than simply believed him dead, how different would his life have been? The Oedipus complex is a way for standard gender development to occur – what would the situation be for somebody raised by a former man who had altered his own gender? Whilst heterosexuality forms the core of most of Freud’s s writing on sex and gender, homosexuality is not ignored. As with any ideas on homosexuality in this more narrow-minded age, some of his thinking on the subject is somewhat dated. Homosexuality in Freud is almost narcissistic; the persons object-ideal is a reflection of the self. But the situation that Almodovar creates in “All About My Mother” is so much more complicated than straightforward homosexuality; is such a modern and unusual situation which is difficult to tackle in Freudian terms. Lola was born a man, and retains male genitalia, but is living and dressing (let us not completely ignore the cultural significance of dress) but is still choosing women as his sexual partners, having impregnated both Manuela and her friend, young nun Rosa (Penelope Cruz). Is this heterosexuality, or homosexuality? In truth it is probably neither. One of the greatest achievements of Almodovar’s films is that sexuality can not take on its conventional labels. Trying to pin down what kind of Oedipus complex a character like Lola would have is an impossible task, but Freud would certainly presume that it did not occur in the usual destroy the father/possess the mother manner, as this means that he would have mimicked the father in order to be a more “conventional man.” The potential and backstorys for gender development is indivual characters is left open-ended –we know nothing of Lola’s family background and how she came to alter her gender. Her absence in Esteban’s life raises further off-screen questions – did her absence influence his sexuality, and would it have followed the same path (considering the lack of a “conventional father figure” either way?)

The modern world has proved some elements of the Oedipus complex wrong, in spite of its important place in developmental psychology. The complex does seem to fundamentally suggest, after all, that an absent father figure would lead to gender dysmorphia or homosexuality, but many young men are raised by single mothers and still fit the narrow mould of a “conventional man.” It does not take any kind of scientific or sociological study to confirm this; we can just like around. The majority of people raised by actual transgender parents, however, is very small and difficult to gain conclusions from. Manuela has chosen to tell Esteban that his father is dead rather than expose him to what he/she truly is. Esteban’s own sexuality may never be truly apparent, but his demeanour fits a stereotype belonging more to the homosexuality that Freud have would have placed him in than heterosexuality. Almodovar’s films may invert, subvert and generally play with the Freudian, but on this particular point he “matches” Freud perfectly.

Of course, these kinds of ideas in Almodovar’s films are more closely linked with later “queer theory”, who take their cue from Freud, than Freud himself. One of the leading figures on “queer theory” is Judith Butler whose most famous book “Gender Trouble” (1990) saw her argue that feminisms key mistake was trying to assert that “women” were a group with common characteristics and interests. Butler claims that this approach performs an “unwitting regulation and reification of gender relations,” which reinforces a binary view gender relations in which human beings are divided into two clear-cut groups, women and men. Rather than opening up the possibilities for a person to form and choose them, feminism had closed the options down.

Thus, Almodovar’s films are almost post-feminist if looked at through a Butler-inspired viewpoint, as many of the characters have asserted power over their gender by choosing it.

Butler notes in her works that feminists rejected the idea that feminist rejected the idea that biology is destiny, and yet developed an account of a patriarchal culture which assumed that masculine and feminine genders would invariably be built, by culture, upon “male” and “female” bodies, making the same destiny just as inescapable. This argument allows no room for choice, reason or resistance.

So, if this is to be rejected, that should we opt for instead? Butler argues in favour for the alternative of “those historical and anthroplogical positions that understand gender as a relation among socially constituted subjects in specifiable contexts. For Butler, gender should be seen as a fluid variable which shifts and changes in different contexts and different times.

Even though Butler is the forerunner of these theories under the name “Queer Theory,” they were not completely new or groundbreaking – we only need to turn back to the 1940’s novels of Jean Genet (for example, in his classic novel “Our Lady Of the Flowers" descriptions of the character Divine move seamlessly from “he”to “she”) to see this. As it happens, Butler is partly inspired by Genet’s friend Michel Foucault. His influence forms an argument that sex (in its “masculine” and “feminine”definitions), which in turn provokes desire towards the opposite gender, which is a kind of continuum. Butler, like Foucault, believes in breaking the links between these, in order to make gender and desire flexible, not caused by other stable factors. This theory is certainly captured in “All About My Mother.” Characters such as Lola seem unrestrained by any stable factors, as she is born male, becomes female, but still feels desire towards other females (even though, of course, Butler would reject these particular labels.) The way such characters operate certainly fits with Butlers claims in “Gender Trouble” that “there is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender…identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.” This indicates that for Butler, gender is a performance; it’s what you actually do at particular times, rather than a universal who you are. Butler suggests that certain cultural configurations of gender have seized a hegemonic hold, but it does not have to be this way. This might all seem a little to idealistic, as if there is no unfeasible utopian vision at the heart of it, but Butler actually proposes that we can take subversive action right now, we can create the mobilization, subversive confusion, and proliferation, of genders. Are Almodovar’s characters taking part in this? It is difficult to say. “All About My Mother” was released in 1999, nine years after the publication of “Gender Trouble.” But there is nothing to suggest that the transgender roles adopted by Lola etc are implicitly political. People who experiment with their gender (in life as much as in art) are often confused and distressed, not some sort of gender warrior). But to talk about merely adopted a transgender role is to oversimplify Butler’s ideas (and ideology).Butler argues that we all put on a gender performance anyway, whether it is traditional or not, and so it is not a question of whether to “do” a gender performance, but what form that performance will take. By opting to do something different with it, we might work to change gender norms and the binary understanding of masculinity and femininity.

Considering the somewhat dated attitude that Freud sometimes proposes in his thinking towards gender and sexuality, and the very modern ideas on these themes often proposed by contemporary European cinema, a theory like Butlers, spawned from Freudian elements, seems to have more relevance as a point of analysis. Butler’s ideas certainly throw up some interesting questions – why should gender be binary? One character in “All About My Mother,” a colourful, down-on-her-luck transgender prostitute named tells somebody that clients like “good big hard tits and a good big hard cock,” something which unites the supposed binaries in order to remove them. But were Freud has been widely influential enough to be popular for critical theory and film theory, could the same ever be said for Butler? How far-reaching have the ideas in “Gender Trouble” been?
The idea of identity as free-floating, connected to a performance instead of an essence, spawned the school of “queer theory” as a whole new critical theory, thus ensuring Butler’s place in the critical canon.

Other key writers on “queer theory” include Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick, whose groundbreaking word “Epistemology of the Closet” combined feminist with anti-homophobic methodologies. It was released in the same year as “Gender Trouble”, and is just as interesting in its approach, sometimes addressing similar themes. Sedgewick writes, “in twentieth century Western culture gender and sexuality represent two analytic axes that may productively be imagined as being as distinct from one another as, say, gender and class, or class and race. Distinct, that is to say, no more than minimally, and nonetheless usefully.”

In “Epistemology of the Closet” Sedgewick argues for the absolute centrality of sexuality to understand modern culture, saying in the very beginning of the text that “an understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition.” Whilst undeniably more modern, some of Sedgewick’s thought is certainly grounded in Freudian ideas, particularly the idea of sexuality as the root and central point of human actions. However, were Freud makes the homosexual/heterosexual definition, Sedgewick demonstrates that this distinction is fundamentally incoherent, in spite of being at the heart of modern sexual definition. There are two reasons for this. One is that there is the persistent contradiction inherent in representing homosexuality as the property of a distinct minority population. Reasonably, Sedgewick labels this a “minoritizing view.” This is a tangent of the idea that it is a sexual desire that potentially marks everyone, including ostensibly heterosexual subjects – which Sdgewick describes as a “universalizing view.” On the other hand, there is the abiding contradiction in thinking about the gendering of homosexual desire in both transitive and separatist terms, where s transitive understanding locates that desire as originating in some threshold space between gender categories whilst a separatist understanding takes it as the purest expression of masculinity or femininity.

The theories proposed by Butler, Sedgewick and other queer theory thinkers such as provide useful ground. Using them to critique pre-1990’s films is obviously problematic due to the timescale, but films made post-1990, such as Almodovar’s later films, are almost certainly the films of Queer Theory. A Freudian reading is more difficult as even more contemporary Freud-inspired thinkers would no doubt hold some objectives to the kinds of characters Almodovar creates – for example Jacques Lacan, whose thought is very popular in film theory (particularly his notion of “the gaze”) would claim that to be transgender is a concept that would be imaginary, as certain cultural formations use biological differences as a peg. A thinker like Derrida, who wants to eliminate binaries, would have more in common with Butler, as it seems to be an argument with the supposed male/female binary which most distinguishes Butlers thought.

Queer Theory often has a difficult relationship with Freudian thought. It is partly reliant on his ideas to centre its own theories, but on the other hand it is locked in an argument with him. Feminism, which is still a precursor to queer theory in spite of Butlers argument with it, usually derides and dislikes Freud. But is he really misogynist, or has it just been misinterpreted this way?

Two of Freud’s most famous theories have often been derided as sexist. One is penis envy – many feminists find the idea of women envying their penis completely derogatory; almost laughable. But, more to the point, is it an accurate theory? Very few women claim to claim a penis; far more men claim to envy female genitalia. But in the film, the penis is often prized in sex scenes. Films which are explicit, but not necessarily pornography, put proud focus on it in sex scenes; the same attention given to female genitalia is the reserve of out-and-out pornography. Films which deal with explicit, taboo themes whilst being many miles away from pornography have potential to bridge some interesting Freudian gaps. A good example of this is the film “The Piano Teacher.”

“The Piano Teacher” is not an original screenplay, but is adapted from a famously discomfiting novel by Elfriede Helinek, whose Nobel prize for Literature caused a moral outrage on the grounds of her “pornographic” nature. But “pornorgraphy” is not an appropriate label for her novels – they break taboos, but do ot titillate or provide sexual fulfilment. The film centres on a cold masochistic woman, played by Isabel Huppert, a character who could be seen as Freudian, in hugely distorted ways. She has an absent father and shares a bed with her overbearing mother, who at one point she makes a pass at – an unresolved Oedipus complex, yes, but giving a woman (who should undergo the female complex, the Electra theory) distorts the theory. The film was directed by Micheal Hanneke, an acclaimed maverick who has an interest in tapping into the viewers psyche when it comes to their capacity for enjoying violence. But where this is evident in some of his earlier films, such as “Funny Games”, “The Piano Teacher” is more likely to prompt the viewer to look away, particularly when Huppert’s character Erika mutilates her own genitals. Here the female genitals are being depicted, but as a source of discomfort. Freud may have talked about “penis envy” but this kind of vaginal anger pushes the theory even further. Lars Von Trier’s film “Antichrist” caused similar controversy with its scenes of auto-clitorectomy. Where films like Almodovar’s take Freudian theory and subvert it,Von Trier and Haneke capitalise on it in extreme ways.

Sexuality is at the heart of so much cinema; to view it all with a Freudian viewpoint would be to exaggerate and overcomplicate many films. But the influence of Freud on twentieth century thought on gender and sexuality in Europe means that his influence on cinema is almost as unavoidable as it is in psychology.

Amy Britton


Sigmund Freud An Outline of Psychoanalysis Penguin 2003
Sigmund Freud The Complete Works Volume 1&2 Vintage 2001
Judith Butler Gender Trouble Routledge 2006
Mark Cousins The Story Of Film: A Odyssey Pavilion 2011
Elfriede Jelinek The Piano Teacher Vintage 2001
Eve Kofosky Sedgewick Epistemology of the Closet University of California Press 2003