Freud and Almodovar at the French Institute

Top Stories | Roxanne Powell | February 2013

The staircase of the French Institute's Palais Clam-Gallas (Photo: Karola Riegler)

The French often talk about thought as if it were a contagious disease – like my one-time literature professor, who would say, "Il y a des idées dans l’air!" There are ideas in the air!

And so it seemed at the conference "Art and the Body – How Hysteria is Viewed in the 21st Century" in the Salon rouge of the French Institute in the Palais Clam-Gallas on Währinger Straße in the 9th District. The Palais is a neoclassical pile dating back to the 1830s, a princely setting of ivory-painted wood and gilded stucco, hung with delicate red damask tapestry. An oversized crystal chandelier hung low over the heads of the assembled francophiles.

Céline Masson from Université Paris VII opened with fascinating parallels between cinema and psychoanalysis, both born in 1895, year of the patent for the Brothers Lumière’s cinématographe and Freud’s Studies On Hysteria. Both events broke with what had preceded them and had much in common: For instance, they "cross-sectioned chaos" in order to reveal hidden structures; just as filmmakers can entirely change the meaning of a series of shots through careful editing, hysterics edit their memories in a specific way to create the desired narrative. The darkened movie theatre could be likened to a "dream technique".

Vincent Estellon of Université René Descartes drew parallels with Spanish filmmaker Almodovar, whose rebellious, lively, liberating and cathartic staged hysteria had dominated his early movies. Later, they took a gloomier turn as protagonists made more perverse arrangements with reality. It was a similar pattern to the evolution of Freudian thinking: Early hopes of healing through the "talking cure" were dashed – after 1913-14, Freud’s research moved on to masochism and melancholy.

Almodovar’s latest film, The Skin I Live In, was open to a psychoanalytical reading spanning genders and generations. The main character’s name, Vera Cruz (the "real cross"), hints at the lifelong burden of being the "wrong gender" in a parent’s eye as you, the child, unconsciously strive to accommodate the parent’s desire and go mad along the way.

During the Q&A session, one French woman rejoiced that Freud’s fear that cinema wouldn’t be able to express emotion had been proven wrong – Almodovar’s oeuvre being a case in point. But the real difference between cinema and psychoanalysis, quipped an Austrian (in French), is that you pay before the screening, but after the session.

The Parisian psychoanalysts were in Vienna for a week and were not altogether pleased with what they saw. The Freud Museum was "a bit sad…" said one. "There’s a lot more in the Freud Museum in London." Forced to emigrate with her father in 1938, Anna Freud later refused to return Freud’s furnishings and papers to Vienna. Although there is much to see in the apartment/museum at Berggasse 19, only the waiting room feels real. Freud’s absence can still be felt in Vienna today.


Colloquium: Le corps et l’art – la vision de l’hystérie au XXIe siècle (22, 23 Nov. 2012), a collaboration of Vienna Artweek, Institut français de Vienne, Foundation Sigmund Freud, Pandora Research Group and CRPMS (Centre de Recherches psychanalyse, Médecine et Société), with support from the World Psychiatric Association Section on Art and Psychiatry.


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