The London Film Festival – a crash course in psychology

I’ve had a few days to breathe since the end of the London Film Festival (see the stuffs at A few days into the festival, it struck me that rather a lot of the films I was watching relied heavily on psychiatry or characters with psychiatric disorders. Characters with Alzheimer’s were presented in both The Descendents, where the protagonist’s mother-in-law suffers and in Terri, where the title character cares for his Alzheimic uncle. Alcoholism is prominent in both Rampart, where Woody Harrelson’s antihero-cop is seldom without a drink, and Junkhearts as Eddie Marsan struggles with alcohol to deal with a traumatic event in his past. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is prominent in oddball Norwegian flick King Curling and in divisive American indie-kook flick Damsels in Distress. And characters in Alois Nebel and Wreckers appear to be suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. This is without throwing in the delusions and paranoia suffered by Elizabeth Olsen’s character when she escapes an abusive cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Here are my five picks from the London Film Festival for a crash course in psychology

A Dangerous Method

While it’s not a great historical drama and not as interesting as the directors earlier work, it’s not a bad introduction to Sigmund Freud. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) attempts to use Freud’s talking therapy to treat Sabine Spielrein (Keira Knightley) and her fondness of spanking. Freud is played totally deadpan by Viggo Mortensen; he exchanges letters with Jung in which he expresses his belief that sexual drive underlies all human behaviour. On camera, Jung suggests this is because Freud isn’t getting any. Freud also believed that his talking cure helped release the repression practiced by the unconscious mind over human sexual desires. Freud was also very interested in dreams, something he shared with Jung. However Jung’s obsession with the occult was deemed unscientific by Freud, and I am inclined to agree with him. The film (based on Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure) suggests that Freud and Jung’s falling out had more to do with Jung’s relationship with Spielrein, but this remains largely speculative. Of course, Spielrein herself became a prominent child psychoanalyst. Trailer.

Shock Head Soul

Daniel Paul Schreber’s astonishing account of his own mental illness, Memoirs of my Nervous Illness, was published in 1903  and has been used for the basis of Shock Head Soul. Using a combination of documentary and dramatisation, the filmakers have made use of modern day academics to provide insights into Schreber’s symptoms and treatments. Schreber was a German high court judge in Dresden, the added pressure his new job, in addition to some barbaric treatment as a child, precipitated the onset of what was described at the time as dementia praecox.  Initial symptoms included insomnia, but his condition deteriorated rapidly and he was admitted to the University of Leipzig Psychiatric Clinic. He believed, among other things, that God wanted to turn him into a women. Schreber’s case was brought to prominence by Sigmund Freud, in his book The Schreber Case. Although Freud never met Schreber, Freud’s analysis of the book meant that it became hugely important in the history of psychiatry. The 1900s were a landmark in psychiatry – the way in which the brain worked was just starting to be understood, it meant that madness was starting to be considered a disease and not something ‘other’ like demonic possession or being of divine origin. Present day psychoanalysts diagnose  Schreber with schizophrenia. It is a fascinating watch and will likely become required viewing for any students of psychology or psychiatry. Clip.

Take Shelter

Curtis (Michael Shannon) is plagued with vivid nightmares and hallucinations in Jeff Nichols striking indie  film Take Shelter. While not entirely based on the writer-director’s own experiences, when asked, Michael Shannon has said that what Curtis goes through is an extreme version of what Nichols had experienced. Shortly before the start of the film, Curtis’ father has died, the country is in a financial crisis and a nearby town has succumbed to a toxic cloud. Curtis, his wife Samantha (the apparently ubiquitous Jessica Chastain) and daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) live in a tight-knit community in small town Iowa. His vivid dreams centre on impending storms of toxic rain and how the rain makes people crazy. The dreams affect his everyday life; he relocates his beloved dog to the yard, it leads to a rift between his best friend and it drives him to obsessively build a storm shelter. Curtis is concerned by the intense dreams and the way they are affecting him, especially since his mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at the age of 30 (and as with many illnesses, there is a genetic link). Because of the shitness of the US health care system, Curtis doesn’t get treatment from a specialist. It is apparently a fairly good depiction of schizophrenia; in Curtis’ case, it appears to be brought about by anxiety surrounding his family,  Nichols sums this up “Anxiety, no matter how free-floating it feels, it’s all rooted in the idea that you have something to lose.” Take Shelter is a moving depiction of a normal man’s decent into schizophrenia and how it affects people around them. As a piece on schizophrenia, found it much more engaging than Shock Head Soul. Trailer.

I know I have schizophrenia in here twice. This is my blog, so screw you.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

One of the more uncomfortable films at the London Film Festival is Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. Based on Lionel Schriver’s book, it centres on the relationship, or lack there of, between Eva (Tilda Swinton) and her son Kevin (played by Ezra Miller, Jasper Newall and Rocky Duer). While the film (and presumably, the novel) looks into why Kevin is the way he is, it never makes any conclusions. Eva is entirely un-maternal, she appears decidedly unhappy while pregnant, and fails to bond with her child. When Kevin cries for 16 hours straight, driving Eva insensible – her husband Franklin (John C Reilly), sees nothing of this – she wonders if he is just pure evil. Kevin’s behaviour becomes consciously vindictive as he gets older, leading to a horrifying crime for which he is imprisoned. The author puts forward Eva’s failure as a parent along with Kevin being just evil to come up with every parent’s nightmare. However, the film paints Kevin as unnaturally evil – as a sort of Damien from The Omen. I think the debate of nature versus nurture in this case is a moot point as the book and film are fictional and the situations entirely contrived. Kevin is evil because Lionel Shriver hates children. However, Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, has already taken a look at Kevin. He describes Kevin’s as having a lack of empathy, which likely has physiological routes. The brain pathways in psychopaths and sociopaths underlying empathy are not as strong as in others, and this appears to be genetic. However, there is also an environmental component, so parenting can play a role.  Kevin seems to fit in with what the DSM describes as Dyssocial Personality Disorder or Antisocial Personality Disorder; what is interesting is that although lacking in affective empathy, (he feels no empathy for others) he has a good grasp of cognitive empathy which enables him to skillfully manipulate others. Trailer.


Michael Fassbender is a sex-addict in Steve McQueen’s second film. He lives a sparse life, as his clinical apartment and his relationship void attest. He has a filthy porn stash on his work computer (a sackable offence everywhere I’ve worked), engages in frequent onanism (please don’t google that word), and beds multiple women in meaningless encounters – in short, his sex addiction rules his life. His sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) appears, needing somewhere to stay. She is clearly unwelcome, and Brandon is determined to keep his life as empty as possible. They are both equally isolated loners and through their relationship an unhappy family life emerges. There is an ongoing debate by the American Psychiatric Association as to whether this is a “sex addiction” per se, or whether it is a manifestation of other disorders such as bipolar disorder or schizoaffective disorder. The cases are subjective to some extent, but it would appear that if it is significantly affecting the individual’s life and behaviour, the purported addiction is clearly a problem. The discussion in the newest version of the DSM highlights a condition they call “hypersexual disorder“, but they consider it to be a symptom, rather than a condition in itself, and fail to discuss the causes. Trailer.




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