In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Psychoanalytic Film Theory

  • Introduction
  • Psychoanalytic Source Materials
  • Anthologies
  • Traditional Psychoanalytic Film Theory
  • Responses to Traditional Psychoanalytic Film Theory
  • Early Psychoanalytic Feminist Film Theory
  • New Psychoanalytic Film Theory
  • Refinements of the New Psychoanalytic Film Theory
  • Slavoj Žižek
  • Later Feminist Psychoanalytic Film Theory
  • Voice
  • Queer Theory and Psychoanalysis
  • Representations of Psychoanalysis in the Cinema

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Cinema and Media Studies Psychoanalytic Film Theory
Todd McGowan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0052


Psychoanalytic film theory occurred in two distinct waves. The first, beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, focused on a formal critique of cinema’s dissemination of ideology, and especially on the role of the cinematic apparatus in this process. The main figures of this first wave were Christian Metz, Jean-Louis Baudry, and Laura Mulvey. They took their primary inspiration from the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and they most often read Lacan through the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser’s account of subject formation. The second wave of psychoanalytic film theory has also had its basis in Lacan’s thought, though with a significantly different emphasis. Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this manifestation of psychoanalytic film theory, which continues to remain productive even today, shifted the focus from cinema’s ideological work to the relationship between cinema and a trauma that disrupts the functioning of ideology. In Lacan’s terms, the terrain of psychoanalytic film theory shifted from the axis of the symbolic order and the imaginary to that of the symbolic order and the real. Although psychoanalytic film theorists continue to discuss cinema’s relationship to ideology, they have ceased looking for ideology in the cinematic apparatus itself and begun to look for it in filmic structure. Cinema remains a site for the dissemination of ideology, but it has also become a potential site of political and psychic disruption. The main proponents of this second wave of psychoanalytic film theory are Joan Copjec and Slavoj Žižek. Though the latter has received much more recognition and has produced far more work, one could contend that Copjec’s early work was more revolutionary, as it was her reading of Laura Mulvey’s critique of the male gaze as a Foucaultian critique rather than as a Lacanian one that genuinely commenced the new epoch of psychoanalytic film theory. According to the main figures of the second wave, the initial wave of psychoanalytic film theory failed to be psychoanalytic enough, and the result was a hodgepodge of Marxism and psychoanalysis that produced a straw position that anti-theorists such as David Bordwell could easily attack. The initial aim of the second wave was to create an authentic Lacanian film theory that would approach the cinema with the complexity that it merited. Though there have been isolated works of film theory and criticism dealing with other psychoanalytic thinkers (such Carl Jung, Melanie Klein, or D. W. Winnicott), the primary source for both waves of psychoanalytic film theory has remained Jacques Lacan and, to a lesser extent, Sigmund Freud.

Psychoanalytic Source Materials

Certain texts in the history of psychoanalytic theory form the primary body of reference material for psychoanalytic film theory. This changes from the first wave of traditional psychoanalytic film theory to the second wave, but an understanding of these texts is crucial for comprehending the theoretical project of each wave. Traditional psychoanalytic film theory relied heavily on Freud 1961, Lacan 2006, Miller 1977–1978, and Althusser 1971 for its blend of psychoanalytic and political theorizing. Later theorists turned to Freud 1953 and Lacan 1978.

  • Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Translated by Ben Brewster. In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. By Louis Althusser, 127–188. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971.

    Originally published in French, Althusser’s essay theorized the fundamental operation of ideology as the formation of the subject. Though Althusser was not a psychoanalyst or a psychoanalytic theorist, traditional psychoanalytic film theorists took up this idea as foundational for their approach to the cinema and began to see the cinema itself as a place where the spectator was constituted ideologically as a subject. Available online.

  • Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by James Strachey. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vols. 4–5. By Sigmund Freud. Edited by James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1953.

    Though Freud never discusses the cinema or the analogy between dreams and films, this work provided much inspiration for psychoanalytic film theorists. Freud interprets the dream as the “disguised fulfillment of a wish” or as a fantasy, and this leads to the analysis of the cinema as a fantasy space.

  • Freud, Sigmund. “Fetishism.” Translated by James Strachey. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 21. By Sigmund Freud. Edited by James Strachey, 152–159. London: Hogarth Press, 1961.

    Fetishism functions as the exemplary perversion for Freud. It allows the subject to disavow its castration while obtaining sexual pleasure at the same time. For many psychoanalytic film theorists (especially from the first wave), the same process occurs for the cinematic spectator.

  • Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Translated by Alan Sheridan. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton, 1978.

    This was Lacan’s eleventh seminar and the first presented to the general public, rather than to a specialized group of psychoanalytic practitioners. Jacques-Alain Miller transformed the oral seminar into a French book, which subsequently greatly influenced psychoanalytic film theory because Lacan introduces the concept of the gaze as a form of what he calls the objet petit, or object-cause of desire.

  • Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” In Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. By Jacques Lacan. Translated by Bruce Fink, 75–81. New York: Norton, 2006.

    Written in French, Lacan’s essay on the mirror stage was the defining theoretical starting point for traditional psychoanalytic film theorists. Lacan theorizes that the mirror stage allows the infant to see its fragmentary self as an imaginary whole, and film theorists would see the cinema functioning as a mirror for spectators in precisely the same way.

  • Miller, Jacques-Alain. “Suture (Elements of the Logic of the Signifier).” Translated by Jacqueline Rose. Screen 18.4 (Winter 1977–1978): 23–34.

    Engaging Jacques Lacan and Gottlob Frege, Miller links the formation of the subject in psychoanalysis to the act of suture. The subject, as Miller sees it, occupies the point of the zero in Frege’s mathematics. Originally published in a French psychoanalytic journal, Miller’s account of suture would become central for traditional psychoanalytic film theory.

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