Psychoanalysis in Film

Psychoanalysis entered into film theory in the 1970s with Laura Mulvey’s seminal paper Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema (1975). Initially, Psychoanalysis and its core concepts: the id (the primal, impulsive and selfish part of the psyche), the ego (the realistic mediator between id and super-ego) and the super-ego (the moral conscience) were established by Sigmund Freud (Freud, 1921).

Through dream analysis, Freud interpreted repressed fears and desires of patients. Barry argues that ideas in dreams and literature are structured in the same way. Both transform abstract ideas into concrete images and neither make explicit statements (Barry, 2002). Freud decoded meaning from dreams as a literature student would from prose. Freud’s ‘topographical model’ of the mind likened it to an iceberg, the tip being the conscious mind and the larger underwater part being the subconscious (Friedenberg & Silverman, 2002). Between the sixties and seventies psychoanalytic discussion grew, which led to it being applied to film.

Mulvey argued that like how dreams are structured by the subconscious, film form is structured by society’s patriarchal tendencies (Mulvey, p6). Freud defined ‘The Oedipus Complex’: in which the child sees him/herself in the mother and identifies through her. Similarly, Lacan defined ‘The Mirror Stage’, in which small children recognise themselves in the mirror (as opposed to the mother), thus seeing their body as a whole instead of as unconnected body parts. Due to its fundamentally narcissistic nature, the mirror stage is incomplete and unstable. Lacan argues that it must therefore be ‘filled in’, through imagination. The imagination is a ‘fantasy construction’ in which the individual conceives perfect self and throughout life desires to return to this point. According to Lacan we use temporary gratification such as sex and food.When the individual develops imagination and the ego they begin to identify from the external ‘ideal point of view’ of a symbolic other that judges, e.g. Religion or Society (Dor, 1998). In Film, when an audience identifies with the male protagonist, with his good looks and powerful nature, they are taken back to the early point in the mirror stage. This is because they see a reminder of the perfect, ‘more complete, more powerful ideal ego’ they once saw before it was fragmented by non-perfect reality (Mulvey, p12). Hitchcock, in Vertigo, through subjective points of view and other ‘identification processes’, draws an audience into this perspective and shared gaze (Mulvey, p15).

Mulvey writes that, in Film, the director controls the erotic gaze of the viewer whilst the male protagonist exists for the viewer to identify with. Films like Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958) as well as Peeping Tom (1960) work as metaphors for the cinematic experience, playing on the thrills gained from voyeurism and scopophilia which Freud associated with subjecting people to a ‘controlling and curious gaze’ (Mulvey, p8).

Mulvey defines women’s role in Film as ‘a source of anxiety …to be investigated, punished and forgiven’ (e.g. in Vertigo), or she is to be ‘idealised and fetishised’, which in both cases is a distraction. For example, in The Matrix (1999), ‘the woman in the red dress’ exists to distract Neo as Morpheus feeds him exposition; Morpheus, like Mulvey, is aware that she will distract Neo. The woman even looks like Marilyn Monroe, a staple of classic Hollywood which was the focus of Mulvey’s work.

Berger expands on gender roles by stating that ‘men act and women appear’. This not only affects relationships between genders but affects women in relation to themselves; they either adopt the male gaze or become an object to be looked at or ‘a sight’ (Berger, 1972). Similarly, Mulvey describes women as ‘bearer[s] of meaning not… maker[s] of it’ (Mulvey, p7), connoting ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ (Mulvey, p11).

It is apparent that Hollywood is still male-dominated and considering how a ruling ideology perpetuates itself (Marx & Engels in Durham, 2001), this is not surprising. It can be seen in the slow motion shots of women cleaning motorcycles in Transformers, for example. Also, considering the number of male superheroes dominating the box office, there is notably few superheroines and those that are included are massively objectified (Black Widow, Elektra, Harley Quinn). Although, with the success of Star Wars’ new female protagonists there may be hope.


Barry, P. (2002) Beginning Theory. 2nd ed., Manchester: Manchester University Press p94

Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin, p47

Dor, J (1998). Introduction to the Reading of Lacan: The Unconscious Structured like a Language. New Hampshire: Other Press. p93-110.

Freud, S (1949). Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. 5th ed. London: The Hogarth Press. p1-64.

Friedenberg, J & Silverman, G (2012). Cognitive Science: An Introduction to the Study of the Mind. London: Sage. p73-74

Marx, K & Engels, F & Durham, M & Kellner, D (2001). Media and Cultural Studies; Keywork (The Ruling Class and the Ruling Ideals). Malden, USA: Blackwell.

Mulvey, L. (1975) ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.’ Screen, 16(3) p. 6-18


Peeping Tom (1960) Directed by Michael Powell [Film]. UK: Anglo-Amalgamated Film Distributors

Rear Window (1954) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock [Film]. USA: Paramount Pictures

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) Directed by J.J. Abrams [Film]. USA: Walt Disney Studios

The Avengers (2012) Directed by Joss Whedon [Film]. USA: Walt Disney Studios

Transformers (2007-) Directed by Michael Bay [Film Franchise]. USA: Dreamworks Pictures & Paramount Pictures

Vertigo (1958) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock [Film]. USA: Paramount Pictures

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