Samiksha Jaiswal (Editor)

Psychoanalytic film theory

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Psychoanalytic film theory is a school of academic thought that evokes of the concepts of psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. The theory is closely tied to Critical theory, Marxist film theory, and Apparatus theory. The theory is separated into two waves. The First wave occurred in the 1960s and 70s. The second wave became popular in the 1980s and 90s.



At the end of the nineteenth century, Psychoanalysis was created, Film followed shortly after. André Breton, the founder of the Surrealist movement, saw film as a means of engaging the unconscious. Since films had the ablity to tell a story using techniques such as superimposition, and slow motion, the Surrealists saw this as mimicking dreams.

Early applications of psychoanalysis to cinema concentrated on unmasking latent meanings behind screen images, before moving on to a consideration of film as a representation of fantasy. From there, a wider consideration of the subject position of the viewer led to wider engagements with critical theory - to psychoanalytic film theory proper.

Freud's concepts of the Oedipus complex, narcissism, castration, the unconscious, the return, and hysteria are all utilized in film theory. The 'unconscious' of a film are examined; this is known as subtext.


In the early 1970s, Christian Metz and Laura Mulvey separately explored aspects of the "gaze" in the cinema, Metz stressing the viewer's identification with the camera's vision, - an identification largely "constructed" by the film itself - and Mulvey the fetishistic aspects of (especially) the male viewer's regard for the onscreen female body.

The viewing subject may be offered particular identifications (usually with a leading male character) from which to watch. The theory stresses the subject's longing for a completeness which the film may appear to offer through identification with an image, although Lacanian theory also indicates that identification with the image is never anything but an illusion and the subject is always split simply by virtue of coming into existence (aphanisis).

Second wave

A second wave of psychoanalytic film criticism associated with Jacqueline Rose emphasised the search for the missing object of desire on the part of the spectator: in Elisabeth Cowie's words, "the pleasure of fantasy lies in the setting out, not in the having of the objects".

As post-structuralism took an increasingly pragmatic approach to the possibilities Theory offered, so too Joan Copjec criticised early work around the gaze in the light of the work of Michel Foucault. The role of trauma in cinematic representation came more to the fore, and Lacanian analysis was seen to offer fertile ways of speaking of film rather than definitive answers or conclusive self-knowledge.


Psychoanalytic film theory Wikipedia