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Film Reviews: Freud’s Last Session & All to Play For

Arts Review2024-1-12By: Marc Glassman

 

Dramatic Interludes

Freud’s Last Session & All to Play For

By Marc Glassman

 

Freud’s Last Session

Matthew Brown, director & co-script w/Mark St. Germain, based on St. Germain’s play, which was inspired by Armand Nicholi’s book The Question of God

Starring: Anthony Hopkins (Sigmund Freud), Matthew Goode (C.S. Lewis), Liv Lisa Fries (Anna Freud), Jodi Balfour (Dorothy Burlingham), Jeremy Northam (Ernest Jones), Orla Brady (Janie Moore)

 

If you’re expecting an intellectual exercise involving the novelist and Christian theologian C.S. Lewis and the world-renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud debating the existence of God, then Matthew Brown’s filmic adaptation of Mark St. Germain’s play Freud’s Last Session, will prove to be a disappointment. Spoiler alert: when all is said and done, Lewis remains a loyal advocate for theism and Freud, a non-practicing Jew, is still an atheist. What’s more disappointing is that we, as the audience, don’t really witness an invigorating debate. Instead, Freud, as the older, more distinguished one, scores points about the hypocrisies of Christianity while Lewis seems reduced to harmless jibes at Freud’s own inconsistencies, ranging from his fascination with Catholic symbols and art to a clearly exploitative relationship (though not physical) with his daughter, Anna. 

As a filmmaker, Matthew Brown has taken the work in a decidedly non-theatrical direction, moving away from dramatic confrontations and long scenes emphasizing dialogue. As a strategy, this changes expectations one might have about the piece, but the shift may work in the film’s favour. Brown places the drama in one of the most impactful moments in modern times, the beginning of World War Two. Lewis’ arrival at Freud’s home is delayed because the trains are overburdened with children being sent to the countryside to avoid potential German bombing raids. Their session is quickly interrupted by an air-raid drill followed by a visit to a local church. It all serves to humanise the two men, showing their camaraderie during an unbelievably stressful time. 

Brown chooses to break up the piece, dramatizing scenes in Lewis’ past, especially his participation as a soldier in World War One and problematic relationship with the mother of his best friend who died in the conflict, and mirroring those with the difficult situation that Anna Freud is in as an undeclared lesbian whose love and devotion to her father is nearly destroying her emotional life. The scenes set away from the Lewis/Freud session are often brilliantly filmed, which both helps and hinders the film: we become distracted from the centrality of the theological debate and more involved with the lives of C.S. Lewis, Anna Freud and, of course, Sigmund, who is wracked with pain from oral cancer. 

Most of the film meanders around the rather toothless debate between Lewis and Freud about the central issue of their, or any, time: the meaning of life. If there was any time in the 20th century when the idea of the goodness of humanity was open to debate, it was certainly the Second World War. Given the opportunity to hear something meaningful expressed, it’s disappointing that we don’t see anything brilliant expressed by either individual. Instead, we have a reasonably good evocation of Lewis’ life before he breaks through with his brilliant Narnia books and a vivid depiction of what Anna Freud had to endure from her old-fashioned father before she finally matured into the matriarch of child psychology. As for Sigmund Freud, we experience a great man coping with dying.

Freud’s Last Session has as its highlight a brilliant performance by Anthony Hopkins in the titular role. He plays Freud as a querulous old man, horrified and bemused by the fate that his sent him to die in England, away from his beloved Vienna, with the spectre of Naziism looming over the civilized continent he had conquered decades ago as a great intellect. Stripped to his final physical resources, wracked with pain, needing morphine continually to ease his suffering, Freud could be a pitiable figure, but Hopkins imbues him with dignity and great anger. Hopkins’ Freud is still a proper individual, socially correct in his dealings with Lewis and others. It’s only with Anna that his weakness resides: he needs her help and can’t deal with her lesbianism. Only a great actor could make you see the tragedy of Sigmund Freud at the end of his life. Hopkins is more than up to the task.

Freud’s Last Session is not the success one would have wanted. But it’s a worthwhile watch for Hopkins’ performance and wonderful period recreations by director Matthew Brown and his excellent crew. 

 

All to Play For (Rien à perdre)

Delphine Deloget, director & co-script w/Olivier Demangel & Camille Fontaine

Starring: Virginie Efira (Sylvie Paugam), Felix Lefebvre (Jean-Jacques Paugam), Alexis Tonetti (Sofiane Paugam), Arieh Worthalter (Hervé Paugam), Mathieu Demy (Alain Paugam), India Hair (Mme. Henry), Andrea Brusque (Nathalie), Oussama Kheddam (Farid)

 

In one of my favourite Sixties films, A Thousand Clowns, Jason Robards plays the perennially sarcastic Murray, a TV writer who has left his career to create something worthwhile but finds himself caught in a dilemma when welfare officials descend on his Manhattan apartment and start to investigate whether he should be taking care of his 12-year-old nephew. They threaten to take the boy away if Murray doesn’t abandon his bohemian life and become a respectable scriptwriter again. To which Murray replies, “Who is writing your scripts? Charles Dickens?”

As the French say, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” or “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” It may be sixty years later in France, but the same narrow-minded bureaucrats still seem to be in place, misunderstanding the love expressed by non-conformists to their children as being inappropriate or, in any case, not enough to pass an official test. 

Delphine Deloget, a first-time director, has made a film that starts in a tough but comedic style, but all too swiftly moves into a scenario that feels like Dickens mixed with Kafka. Her All to Play For, or more correctly from the French “Rien à perdre” or “Nothing to Lose,” is a compelling drama about what happens to a loving but eccentric mother when confronted by the French governmental system. “Rien de bon,” or “nothing good,” would be the reply.

The always compelling Virginie Efira is brilliant as Sylvie, a single-mother of two boys, the grounded, dependable teenager Jean-Jacques and the more difficult 8-year-old Sofiane. One night when Sylvie is working at her job as bartender/nightclub manager and Jean-Jacques is late coming home from trumpet practice, Sofiane burns himself and destroys the stove trying to make fries. J-J returns in enough time to stop the fire and takes Sofiane to the hospital to treat his wounds. When Sylvie finds out, she arrives to comfort both boys and makes every effort to minimize the damage, both physical and psychological. 

It’s all good—but is it? Not to the French government’s social system. Mme. Henry, a strong-willed cold-blooded public servant, arrives one day to take Sofiane away, “for his own good.” The facts are the facts: no adult or even older brother was at home to take care of a child, who injured himself. Sylvie and J-J are horrified as are their friends and family—especially the uncles, Alain and Hervé. 

Deloget takes us on a downward journey as Sylvie tries to get her son back. She leaves the bar behind and tries to work at her brother Alain’s call-centre, which she hates. J-J’s life—formerly quite solid–lurches into crises as he suddenly loses interest in playing music and eventually decides to become a pastry chef. Sylvie’s wonderful qualities—her resourcefulness and compassion—are not enough. She becomes increasingly angry at a system that is keeping her son away from her. Inevitably, Sylvie begins to snap, leading her to several highly dramatic situations and eventually to a problematic solution, which Deloget’s film leaves the audience to endorse, or not. 

Virginie Efira is superb in the film, which is impossible to envision without her in the lead. Still quite beautiful in her mid-40s, Efira’s career has evolved from being a young, totally acceptable, glamorous TV host to a charismatic actor who plays difficult roles with depth, emotion, great heart and humour. She is now one of the finest female actors in France. Efira began her rise to the top in 2016 with In Bed with Victoria, which was also the first success for Justine Triet (now acclaimed for Anatomy of a Fall). Since that time, she’s had another hit with Triet, Sibyl, worked twice with Paul Verhoeven including playing the titular character in the controversial Benedetta and made films with Rebecca Zlotowski (Other People’s Children) and Alice Winocour (Paris Memories). All to Play For wouldn’t attract international attention without Efira and her stunning performance. Delphine Deloget has made a fine debut feature, well worth seeing.

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