Tales of Transference: A Study of Psychoanalytic Thought in the Films of Woody Allen

Essay, 2008

8 Pages, Grade: B


‘I was in analysis with a strict Freudian – if you kill yourself they make you pay for the sessions you miss’ (Alvy, in Annie Hall)

A great deal of allure of contemporary American filmmaker Woody Allen’s art is attributed to the popular doctrine of psychoanalysis. The generally acknowledged founder of the movement is among the director’s main figures of inspiration. Adopting the notion, that there is overlap of autobiographical events with imaginary occurrences in many of Allen’s movie plots, ‘a playful and deliberate oscillation and slippage between his [Woody Allen’s] existential director persona and his fictional actor persona’[1], the character Mickey’s contemplation ‘Freud - another great pessimist; I was in analysis for years, nothing happened’ in the 1986 picture Hannah and her Sisters[2] illustrates in essence the philosophical world view Allen projects from his own experience through a psychoanalytical lens onto the screen, as it alludes to the basic Freudian premise of Thanatos, which radically interpreted renders life meaningless. Beginning with his early films, Allen stages this death force principle as a central idea, whether in terms of the theme in Sleeper[3], where the protagonist is frozen by a team of scientists in an experiment aimed at defying human decay or in regards to the main character’s major fear as a source of anxiety since childhood, as it is hyperbolically depicted in Love and Death[4]. A survey of the comedian’s cinematography then reveals a preoccupation with the psychoanalytic theme over the course of his entire thirty year artistic output, in the context of which its various conceptual and methodological elements are debated. They are intertwined with narrative structure, character development and formation of dialogue, technical aspects as well as the nature of comedy versus tragedy as implicit in the question of the general purpose of art.

‘Freud, Oedipus, incest, anxiety and depression, neurosis and psychosis, guilt and shame, paranoia and narcissistic wounds, therapy sessions, analysis terminable/indeterminable, the logic of case studies, Witz, Freud’s mind model and his writing: all these elements appear as Allen’s natural ether and everyday discourse. They make manifest the lifelong dialogue that Woody Allen, as a filmmaker, has systematically entertained with the world of psychoanalysis.’(Cohen, p. 128)

The following is thus an attempt to interpret selected scenes from the Allen movie collection, whereby special emphasis is given to Annie Hall[5], Manhattan[6], Husbands & Wives[7], Zelig[8] and Hannah and her Sisters (Allen,1986), as these films arguably lend themselves especially well to an examination of the representation of psychoanalysis.

Mentioned briefly in the context of the introduction, unresolved childhood trauma is a basic recurrent motive. Examples are Lee’s alcoholism in Hannah and her Sisters (Allen,1986), Leonard’s pathological need to be liked in a late compensatory attempt to please his abusive parents in Zelig (Allen, 1983), and Gabe’s attraction to women ‘who are great but nuts’ due to ‘some childhood guilt’ as Jack puts it in Husbands & Wives (Allen,1992). It’s the main reason for the characters’ continuous undergoing of therapeutic intervention in the narratives, as that phase in life provides the key to the unconscious, which explains people’s behaviour and transference issues in their relationships. Analogously to clinical sessions, which aim to link the past and present by allowing the patient’s free flow of associations, Allen uses a variety of filmic forms and methods to deconstruct chronological sequencing of events and traditional modes of conveying thoughts and memory in order to illuminate the character’s unconscious. The planetarium scene in Manhattan (Allen, 1979), where the character’s shadows are projected onto a wall, invoking Plato’s cave allegory, when Ike’s double tells Mary’s double that ‘nothing worth knowing can be understood with the mind; everything valuable has to enter you through a different opening, if you forgive the disgusting imagery’ (Ike, in Manhattan, 1979) is a brilliant and comprehensive illustration of the concept. In Hannah and her Sisters (Allen, 1986) voice - over serves as a device for the indirect expression of Holly’s feelings of rejection by a man, whom she likes while sitting in the back of a yellow cab, sensitively letting the audience in on her sense of despair. Rather rarely employed, an animation technique, which works especially well to display a fairy tale image, thus borrowing from a genre loaded with archetypal connotations of unhealthy emotions conducive to psychoanalytic investigation, literally draws a caricature of a distorted socio - sexual preference. ‘Everybody fell for Snow-white; I immediately fell for the wicked Queen’ Alvy reminisces in a flashback (Alvy, in Annie Hall, 1977). It does not come as a surprise then that the same character admits to having ‘been in analysis for fifteen years’ (Alvy, in Annie Hall, 1977), that is precisely since he became depressed as a kid in Brooklyn, who discovered that ‘the Universe is expanding’(Alvy, in Annie Hall, 1977). In the famous scene on the roof top patio of her apartment, Annie subtly makes fun of Alvy because of this. During their conversation, subtitles state the character’s real thoughts, revealing Alvy’s compliment on Annie’s photography as a displaced urge to see her naked. In psychoanalytical terms sexual desire is thus sublimated into the contemplation of art, which makes for a great gag. Ironically, later on in the movie Alvy complains to Annie ‘why do you always reduce my animal urges to psychoanalytic categories?’ (Alvy, in Annie Hall, 1977). The split screen is a further aid Allen utilizes to highlight social and class differences between Alvy and Annie and the way they are manifested in psychoanalytical categories. The couple revisit their past by joining their families at the dinner table, whereby Alvy metamorphoses into an orthodox Jew under the scrutinizing gaze of Annie’s grandmother, hyperbolically conveying Alvy’s inferiority complex as a Jew in the company of a circle of Wasp’s. The two families’ dialogues overlap, when they start talking to each other across the division, rendering the situation quite comical and simultaneously showing the past as relevant to the present, which underscores a major premise in psychoanalysis. The split screen proves to be particularly meaningful in devising the contrast of different therapy styles, as Alvy and Annie have traditional and postmodern preferences respectively, which are conveyed through the futuristic - industrial versus the burgundy red velvet couch collecting dust - old fashioned architectural ambience of the medical offices. As the plot progresses, the increase of the character’s alienation from each other is staged by a transparent phantom stepping out of Annie’s character during the bedroom scene - ‘you are removed’ Alvy exclaims (Alvy, in Annie Hall, 1977), describing their sexual frustration and Annie’s psychoanalytic defence mechanism of dissociating her inner self from the situation. Allen used the same technique to visualize the protagonist Chris’ haunted consciousness, bringing home the silhouettes of characters he killed in Match Point[9]. Here, the uncanny is vividly expressed, a notion denoting a sphere of Unheimlichkeit, touching upon the darker side of the human mind, which is part of what psychoanalysis aims to unriddle. Arguably, Annie Hall (Allen, 1977) has not at last derived its commercial success from Allen’s heavy experimentation with the described phenomena. The art / therapy juxtaposition in itself is a matter of debate in Manhattan (Allen, 1979), when Ike records his thoughts for a story plot, which eventually fuse into emotional connotations as he is distracted by the memory of his failed relationships. He speaks into a microphone while lounging on a couch ‘there are certain things that make life worthwhile…Groucho Marx […], Louie Armstrong’s recording of “Potato head Blues” […], Flaubert, Marlon Brando…those incredible apples and pears by Cezanne…uuhm, the crabs at Sam Wu’s…Tracy’s face…’ (Ike, in Manhattan, 1979). The situation is reminiscent of an authentic treatment situation, particularly due to the absence of an analyst, because in a classical scenario the facilitator shall remain outside of the client’s field of vision. In addition to his personal concerns, Ike also attempts to find a collective catharsis for the Jewish people by writing a book preliminarily entitled ‘The Castrated Zionist’, referring to a story element of the Greek Oedipus myth, which is central to psychoanalytic psychology. Actually, Ike’s friend Yale initially comes up with the idea of ‘art as a means of working through things’ (Yale, in Manhattan, 1979) in the very beginning of the movie. Accordingly, the character Gabe’s lead character in the book he is writing in Husbands & Wives (Allen 1992) is ‘wasting emotional energy obsessing over a pathological relationship’ (Rain, in Husbands & Wives, 1992), which is a pointer of a drift in fact and fiction, because at the time Allen was battling Mia Farrow in divorce court, the latter who plays Gabe’s wife Judy in Husbands & Wives (Allen, 1992).


[1] Alain J.- J. Cohen, in ‘Woody Allen and Freud’, in Celluloid Couches, Cinematic Clients – Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in the Movies (Albany: State University of New York Press 2004), p.128 Further references to this excerpt are given after quotations in the text.

[2] Hannah and her Sisters. Dir. Woody Allen. United Artists. 1986. Further references to this film are given after quotations in the text.

[3] Sleeper. Dir. Woody Allen. 20th cent. Fox.1973. further references to this film are given after quotations in the text.

[4] Love and Death. Dir. Woody Allen. United Artists. 1975. Further references to this film are given after quotations in the text.

[5] Annie Hall. Dir. Woody Allen. United Artists.1977. Further references to this film are given after quotations in the text.

[6] Manhattan. Dir. Woody Allen. United Artists.1979. Further references to this film are given after quotations in the text.

[7] Husbands and Wives. Dir. Woody Allen. United Artists 1992. Further references to this film are given after quotations in the text.

[8] Zelig. Dir. Woody Allen. United Artists.1983. Further references to this film are given after quotations in the text.

[9] Match Point. Dir. Woody Allen. United Artists. 2005. Further references to this film are given after quotations in the text.

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Tales of Transference: A Study of Psychoanalytic Thought in the Films of Woody Allen
University of Sheffield  (School of English Language, Literature and Linguistics)
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tales, transference, study, psychoanalytic, thought, films, woody, allen
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Irene Fowlkes (Author), 2008, Tales of Transference: A Study of Psychoanalytic Thought in the Films of Woody Allen, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/169016


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