The Son’s Room or: The Analysis is Over
Nanni Moretti’s movie “The Son’s Room” (winner of the first prize at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival) marks a turning point in the way cinema represents the psychoanalyst: his personal crisis acts as a metaphor of the general crisis of the modern man or woman. Through the crisis of a psychoanalyst-who ends his professional practice after having lost a son in an accident-Moretti in fact describes the sense of void felt by anyone whose life and thinking have been inspired by modern philosophies (marked by Marx, Nietzsche and Freud). The author shows how the “end of analysis” (in all the senses of the expression), which he analyzes in its main articulations, is the central theme of this movie. The protagonists’ mourning is a way of making them confront a “central void” in their existence that traditional analytical theory and practice are unable to deal with, since these always refer this void back exclusively to the subjects personal history rather than situate its emergence as a concrete life event, as a loss in the real. The movie hints how traditional psychoanalysis represses the meaningless side of human suffering.
Zarathustra descended the mountain without ever coming across anyone. But as he arrived [at the metropolis] he met an old man [a psychoanalyst] who had left his holy hut behind in order to look for some roots [in the metropolis].
“And what is [an analyst] doing [in the metropolis]?” asked Zarathustra.
And [the analyst] replied: “I compose songs and sing them, and when I compose songs I laugh, cry and mumble: which means that I praise [Sigmund Freud].
It is by singing, crying, laughing and mumbling that I praise [Sigmund Freud], my God. But you, what gift are you bringing us?”
On hearing these words Zarathustra bade him [the analyst] farewell. So the two, the old man and the younger man [of 2000] parted from each other laughing as only two boys could.
But , once alone, Zarathustra spoke thus to his heart: “Could this ever be true? this [analyst] old man has not yet heard, here in his [metropolis], that Sigmund Freud is dead!”
Paraphrases from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue, 2.
The son’s room, the Nanni Moretti film which enjoyed so much recent attention in Italy (even amongst psychotherapists), basically deals with the end of analysis.
End in all its meanings. First of all in the sense that an analysis should not go on forever (it must end not only in relation to the analyst but-something even harder-in one’s own life). And it cannot be ended by the patient alone. The main character in the film is indeed an analyst who also stops practicing. Endalso in the sense of aim: Moretti ’s movie seems to suggest that the analysis’ aim is at last to be able to face a real mourning, a real lack.
But this movie also evokes the end of analysis in a general, historical sense: that the age of psychoanalysis is over and, therefore, so is psychoanalysis itself in a certain way. Which does not exclude the possibility of a new life (as yet unknown), rather than just survive itself, as too often happens today. In any case, barring some exceptions, psychoanalysis can no longer be that which we have known to date.
Moretti has almost specialized in portraying figures caught up in a particular historical process which has reached its end. In Ecce Bombo (1978) he picked up on 1970s youth culture being worn down by its intense political and social engagement. In Sogni d’oro (“Golden Dreams”) he sang a requiem for the committed, intellectual cinephiles with their passion for the Cahiers du Cinema and avant-garde cinema. In La Messa è finita (“The Mass Is Over”, 1985) a young priest tackles the believer’s crisis in a de-christianized world, where even charity comes across as vain. Palombella rossa (1990) shows the painful shift of a culture, linked to the Italian Communist Party and its illusions, from Marxism towards the void of the non-political. All these men at the end of a road are played by Moretti himself: he gives a face and a voice to the irony and suffering of these subjects-people from the 70s, the priest, the communist and the analyst-who are seemingly forced into turning over a new leaf. Moretti is endowed with fine historical antennae, at least in his best moments. In “The Son’s Room” he seems to have foreseen the end of psychoanalysis-at least in its classic, stately, orthodox form-and his film somehow marks the setting of the sun over classical Freudian culture and its subcultures. A painful decline, no doubt (for me as well): the end of analysis is not a liberating triumph, a joyful emancipation-the way some superficial and reactive anti-Freudians try to make us believe-but a long, arid process of mourning, a mourning that may trouble analysts in particular, but more generally the whole of 20th century civilization, which has been fascinated by Freud’s thought and ethics. Moretti stages this mourning in a narrative and allegorical way.
The film, which raised a series of public debates among psychotherapists and analysts, lingers on the analytical practice of the main character, Giovanni Sermonti. I have been struck by the very different ways-in certain cases even diametrically opposed-in which each practitioner judges Giovanni’s professionalism, but not only that.
T some the analyst appears too passive, obtuse, unaffectionate; but to others active, perspicacious and empathic. Some see a realistic, fair and clear image of their profession in him, others see him as a failed, or almost, analyst, or as a cliché. These differences should not surprise us. Had Giovanni been a butcher, the reactions from his colleagues would probably have been equally variegated and contradictory. But in this case the scriptwriters and the film director-I don’t know to what extent intentionally-have instilled a creeping doubt, a corrosive uncertainty. Giovanni, not only as an analyst but also as a father and husband, leaves us in doubt in the end. Many spectators hasten to resolve this perplexity in one way or another-some argue that Giovanni is the truly modern analyst; while others say he is just a shit (maybe the two answers do not exclude each other, far from it). But a more sensitive audience might recognize their own undeciveness. On the one hand the Sermonti family appears “good enough” (to use Winnicott’s term), while on the other, having seen how things end up-the destructive mourning of each family member for the death of Andrea, the adolescent son-the suspicion seeps in that there must be some flaws in that serene-looking home. And then, the film does not offer solutions, or give recipes, or propose alternatives. And it does this on several levels.
For instance, what is one to think of his reaction to the accusation against his son of having stolen a fossil from a school science lab? At first glance, he behaves unexceptionably: he does not aggressively defend his son against the accusation, but neither does he overwhelm him with reproaches, as if taking the headmaster’s guilty verdict for granted. He listens to the different parties in a balanced way, and weighs the reliability of witnesses. He is “correct” even as a detective. In the end he seems convinced that his son is innocent on reasonable grounds. Yet the son will later confess, shortly before dying, that he had indeed stolen the fossil. What, then, eluded his father’s insight? To tell the truth, the film signals an uncertainty: while his wife is certain about her son’s innocence, we feel that Giovanni is somehow not completely convinced. (Giovanni’s perplexity also becomes ours, towards him and his whole family.) But does this “not much convinced conviction” weigh on the side of his worth or unworthiness? Should we appreciate more-or less-the fact that he is (wrongly) convinced of his son’s innocence, or the fact that some perplexity still remains? Has he been a “good enough” father-detective or not?
As another example, how should his reaction to Andrea’s sport failures be judged? Noticing that the boy does his best to lose a tennis match, he reproaches him, with no bitterness, about his lack of competitiveness. Should he have read, as an ingenious analyst would, Andrea’s will to lose as a symptomatic confession of his guilt for the theft of the fossil? Should he have followed Dr. Spock’s pedagogic dictates which banned any reproach, instead of flinging his son’s lack of competitiveness in his face? Or was he absolutely right in hinting to his son that, more than losing, he had “wanted” to lose? Each person will judge according to his own criteria of excellence for being a father, an analyst, a husband, a professional, etc.(1) The fact that Moretti leaves us free to judge-without forcing us into a conclusion-is the real gem of movie. There has been so much debate surrounding this movie because the things we consider “good” in the end turn up being, if nothing else, at least “debatable”. A global interpretation of events is not to be excluded-in fact, everyone is pushed to formulate a personal reading-but it is nicely “suspended”.
Still this basic uncertainty in evaluating each character in the film can be attributed to the film’s no final but open meaning: an increasing perplexity in evaluating ourselves. At first the “Morettian” spectator is pushed towards a strong identification with one or all members of the Sermonti family: is it not-apart from that annoying shadow of suspicion-a happy, ideal family? In the end, especially after having been exposed to others’ interpretations, we have to admit that we’re no longer so sure about who and what is “good enough”.
In this sense “The son’s room” is, first of all, a film about the crisis of psychoanalysis in our times. This is the key by which I propose to run through the film again.
The depiction of analysts in movies has roughly gone through two phases. In the first phase, especially in Hollywood in the 1950s and 60s, the psychoanalyst was a modern Savior, a Theseus who killed the psychopathological Minotaur. In these thrillers the analyst was a kind of detective, but beyond “discovering guilt”, he also had to rescue the hero or heroine from illness or whatever else (take Hitchcock’s Marnie or Spellbound). Eminently positive policeman-doctor-lover figures, these analysts brought together the strength of science and the power of love: they put their sharp knowledge at the service of the beloved to rescue. The epos of the analyst-Theseus was dominant, particularly in the USA, when psychoanalysis enjoyed its greatest prestige.
The second phase started in the late 1970s and is epitomized by some of Woody Allen’s films (Another woman (1988), in particular). The analyst appears more and more as a suffering person to be saved. The roles are reversed. At a certain point the analyst recognizes his fragility and failures-he realizes he is “sick” and is pushed to seek help or solutions outside his analytical knowledge. The transformation of the shrink from savior and hero into a “subject to be saved” takes on extreme forms in some movies (2) For instance, in the grotesque Happiness (1999), the shrink, a father and respectable professional man, discovers that he is a pedophile-and acts this out by actually sodomizing some children. A scene both tragic and ridiculous is when the analyst-pedophile explains his hopeless perversion to his adolescent son, who has discovered his father’s flaw: his paternal way of giving him the details using the calm, objective, neutral language of the proper analyst is one of the most impressive moments of recent cinema (3)
Moretti’s film marks perhaps a further slip in the analyst’s film imago. At first glance, it looks like a continuation of “the psychoanalyst in crisis” theme to which we have become accustomed in the last few years. But Giovanni is neither a pedophile nor a neurotic, he is someone who is breaking down because of an external trauma, the loss of his son. This point is essential. The loss and the trauma, coming from without, throw us into a shadowy uncertainty: what has psychoanalysis to say about pain which is caused by an external loss? Yet psychoanalysis mostly thinks that any “psychic disturbance” has its source in a traumatic loss. And in the last resort, couldn’t many complex and important analytical theories on neurosis and psychosis be reduced to the thesis according to which any pathology is the consequence of a missed or failed mourning? Each school uses its own terminology (some talk of lack, others of castration or of absence of the breast, or of frustration, hopelessness, etc.)-but the theory always turns around a loss and the consequent mourning. But when mourning presents itself as such, as a response to a chance event, the analytical discourse is silent. Psychoanalysis, so talkative when it comes to a missed mourning, is mute when faced with mourning itself-thus the uncertainty and oscillation on the part of analysts who have seen the movie.
This uncertainty seems to filter through at all levels. On the one hand, Giovanni comes across as a monogamous, loving and sexually warm husband and an enlightened, tolerant father. Furthermore, he proves not to be a rigid, technocratic analyst, nor a “soul manager”. For example, some of his analyzands lie on the couch, while others talk to him face to face-a sign that he is not fussily clinging to rules of technique. He even makes a home call, his aggressive patients all put his patience to the test each in his own way-but our man always reacts the way one would expect from an analyst. But is all really well in this home and in this analytical setting?
We might, on the other hand, give a different judgment on this happiness and correctness. This apparently happy life, where everything squares, also leaves us with a feeling of flatness: something is missing in his private and professional success. A sort of void roams through the satisfaction of this family where the parents surely participated in the 1970s political or feminist movements and now admire Moretti’s movies (when, at one point, Giovanni says to his family “Let’s go see a movie”, we cannot help thinking that he is suggesting a Moretti film). Suddenly, the void which was lingering like an unpleasant aftertaste becomes concrete in the most brutal way: the boy dies. But does this real lack reveal a pre-existing, ineffable, averted void, or simply create it?
The trauma will quickly destroy the dignified happiness of the little provincial family. The film’s disquieting side is that it is the trauma of the loss alone that provokes the crisis of that family system and of each of its members. The causes of the dissolution of that happiness are not internal, but purely external (4). A meaningless loss shatters the system of meaning on which that “good enough” system was based. There is no deep reason for this ever falling down (5 But the fact that the crisis-which leads the analyst to end the analysis (and to stop being an analyst)-has no internal source is precisely what shatters even further that system which was based on meaning. The collapse of an ideal happiness entails the loss of meaning of a way of life and thought which elected that ideal in the first place. Each is confronted with a true void which, as a post factum consequence, makes the preceding happiness appear essentially empty.
Today we speak a lot about the crisis of psychoanalysis. It may be a metaphor: the crisis of psychoanalysis is in reality the crisis of modern man and woman.
Giovanni-Nanni personifies the 20th century modern ideal man in whom nearly every learned, “progressive”, “modern”, “unprejudiced” person believed (6) And psychoanalysis enjoyed such a success in the 20th century because it offered the paradigm and the goal of modernity’s moral revolution-not only in its clinical practice but also in the ideal of a life enlightened by analysis. The homo novus (a committed human being) and the homo analyticus (promised by the Marxist and libertarian Gospel) became (even for those who had never done an analysis) the task and pride of modernity. The film’s middle class family, before their mourning, embodies this ideal: enlightened availability towards the other, empathy for the suffering, emancipation of youth and women, monogamous heterosexuality, the 2-child family, and an integration between professional life and private wellbeing. Psychoanalysis lent “scientific” support to this model of affective and social fulfillment by “deconstructing” the reasons which opposed it. It was a prop to the project of modern life to the extent that it did not theorize on it (psychoanalysis has mostly refused to define psychic Normality), but rather denounced all that opposed it by interpreting that very opposition. Just as negative theology sustained the faith for centuries by stating all that God was not, so did negative psychology (which is what psychoanalysis ultimately is) sustain the ideals of modern life, not by explicitly establishing what they were, but by showing that whatever led away from them was “pathological”. Psychic unauthenticity-which had to be analyzed, cured-opposed the march towards the type of human being whom Freud (without realizing it) had outlined. This type of human being was the Gestalt background against which “the pathological” he was dealing with would stand out. This film is moving because it shows this “system” to be “chipped, cracked, furrowed, broken” (7).
In effect, this modern ideal of a happily secular life was based on a presupposition: the evil, pain and suffering which really matter have some historical sense. Not by chance did a whole century celebrate the Great Turning Point in Freud’s career when, after having attributed hysterical symptoms to children’s early sexual traumas (usually a seduction on the part of adults), he in the end concluded that these “traumas” were in fact childhood sexual fantasies. Psychoanalytic tradition dates its own symbolic birth from this elimination of the external traumatic “guilt”. The traumas which count are only internal, those for which I am ultimately responsible. (There are even those analysts who say, albeit in private, that rape can be so disturbing for many women because the real violence reactivates early rape fantasies!). What matters is the internal story, not the external encounters and clashes (8)
Attributing the cause of any neurosis to “internal dynamics” is not at all in contradiction with leftist, particularly Marxist, interpretations, which are such a matter of fact for modern man and woman (9) Even Nietzsche was re-evaluated in order to complete this “internist”, basically optimistic, vision of suffering: everything lies in the will of human power. The active joy of the Beyond-Man (Übermensch) who generously destroys and creates must replace the passive suffering of man dominated by reactive forces and rancor. The Modern Trinity-Marx, Nietzsche, Freud-thus became the tripod on which the ethical ideals of 20th century man and woman rested. My impression, though, is that today the tripod is cracked, if not broken. Moretti’s film reveals the crack in the Freudian leg, and one could quote other works which are witness to the collapse of Marxist and Nietzschean certainties as well.
In one scene of the film, an analyzand ill with cancer, evokes during a session a widespread theory: psychological wellbeing helps defeat cancer. For once we are not dealing with superstition: many oncologists confirm that a positive psychic state is a considerable factor for a favorable prognosis. Yet Giovanni does not support this thesis, even though it would bring grist to analysis’ mill. He tells his patient frankly that the course of cancer has nothing to do with psychological progress. It would be hasty to interpret the analyst’s comment by saying, “it was revenge for the fact that, having gone to visit that patient, he feels responsible for his son’s death”. In fact, Giovanni imagines that if that day he had not paid a visit to this patient, he could have convinced his son to give up the fatal diving trip. However, it is not only about revenge for an imaginary blame, but, as will later become clear, about Giovanni no longer believing in the function of the psychotherapeutic discourse. In effect, a psychotherapist is expected to cling to any evidence that “the mind affects the body”, thereby extolling therapy. To evoke the mind’s power over the soma-from Groddeck on-is the keystone of all more or less Reichian psychosomatic trends which prosper in the West (Eastern-type religions, alternative remedies, etc.), up to the American New Age. (I am amazed at the number of analyst friends who embrace such questionable beliefs as astrology. homeopathy, various psycho-thaumaturgies, etc. I wonder if the average analyst is as prey to fashionable superstitions as any average person.) The analyst’s collusion with these “holistic” theories can lead to the temptation to tell people: “even cancer has a meaning, and by discovering and deconstructing its meaning you will be able to defeat it”, or even “you are responsible for your cancer!”. Susan Sontag denounced, and liquidated, this sly modern way of making the sick feel guilty in her essay Illness as Metaphor (10) (illness has once more become, via psychology, a punishment for some guilt, like in the Middle Ages). By interpreting psychic suffering as based on metaphors, psychoanalysis often indulges in seeing any suffering-even physical-as a metaphor, thus offering the interpretation, construction or deconstruction of the metaphor as a sort of panacea. But Giovanni can no longer consent to this mystification: he knows that the loss of his son is not metaphorical! And yet it is a source of truly psychic suffering. “The thing”-the void-is not a metaphor. He has no consoling interpretation for his cancer patient, just as he has no consoling interpretation for the loss of his son.
The film confronts us with “the central void”-here, the loss of Andrea-but not in order to interpret or deconstruct it. The three mourning family members, faced with this void (which is always indissolubly both internal and external), react differently, each interpreting it in their own way. Classical analytical nosography would say that Giovanni is resorting to an obsessional reaction, his wife to an hysterical response, and the daughter to a phobic one. He, a slightly compulsive analyst, turns his gaze to the past: he goes over and over the “scene” of the drowning, he tries to reconstruct it, and he dreams of an “alternative story” to the real one. Giovanni is fixated on the scene of his son’s death, and like he does with a CD player, he repeats the same music sequel over and over, always the same. He does what so many analysts do with their patients: he turns back to the past, and deprives himself of a future.
Andrea’s sister, identifying herself with the deceased, excludes herself from any social life: she manages to get herself expelled from the basketball championship, she breaks up with her boyfriend, and she cries to herself in the changing room of a clothing shop. She also dies to human society, which she tends to avoid in a phobic way. Whereas the father deprives himself of a future, she deprives herself of the present.
The mother instead turns towards a sort of virtual future: her son must carry on living-like a ghost-in the present. Discovering that Andrea had had a summer romance with a girl his own age, she wants desperately to meet her, as though willing this newly blossomed love to go on. She asks her husband to write to the girl to say that Andrea has died, but Giovanni is incapable of doing so? (They will eventually meet her, albeit briefly.) Why does the father analyst seem to want to keep the girl from knowing about the tragedy? Should we attempt a psychoanalytic interpretation of this inhibition? The spectators feel pushed to formulate their conjectures-which will all remain as such.
My guess is that the father cannot inform the girl because, being alive, she embodies the future: her life will go on without his son, and she will love other boys, which is intolerable for him. Instead, he wants to freeze the past: for him, everything spins around the day of the accident. He too would have liked to stop time, to fossilize the relationship bloomed between the girl and his son in an eternal Spring, with no ensuing Summer. (By stealing the fossil from school and breaking it, had Andrea protested against a sort of fossilization of his family? Did he want to break something before breaking his own life? Was his death really an accident? Was there something suicidal in him?)
It becomes ever more evident that Giovanni himself is fossilized, which is why he seems to symbolize a certain fossilization of psychoanalysis. “You always repeat the same rubbish, always the same!”, a patient screams at him. The analytical pretension of digging out the unconscious the way an archaeologist digs out buried cities-Freud’s famous metaphor-in fact risks “fossilizing the past” around which the present is forced to rotate. This is the core of the theory-so popular among analysts-of “interminable analysis” which should be continued even after the conclusion of the treatment: it means that everyone’s life will always have to revolve around the past, like a system wherein the living planet will always revolve around a dead sun. This freezing takes place precisely due to the analytical bet of searching for the “ultimate meaning” of the present malaise in each one’s history. Despite aspiring to free the present from the strings and snares of a past history, Moretti appears to be saying that analysis risks screwing us down to our past as the supposed source of the meaning of what we are and do. In this way, it dissuades us from facing the void with which we will sooner or later have to settle the score. But this void has the weight of a boulder, it is a lump of non-sense: absence, lack, traumatic loss, the cleaving apart of one’s own being. Yet only this frightful confrontation with the Thing-with a real lack-can de-fossilize us. This horror can paradoxically whip us towards life. Confronted after the trauma with the weight of a void, inertia prevents Giovanni from continuing as before: kicked around by his mourning, he has to “make a move” of some sort. He drives his car up to the French border.
The Sermonti family loves sports. The film opens with the analyst jogging, his son Andrea plays tennis and does underwater fishing, his daughter plays basketball. They are dynamic people! In a fantasy, Giovanni proposes a nice walk to an obsessive-and thus particularly “motionless”-patient (11). “I am as boring as she is”, he tells her in his fantasy, while showing her his stupid collection of shoes (12)
But at the same time the spectator perceives that it is all an apparent movement-Falsche Bewegung (13 The superficial movement in this family corresponds to a certain standstill in Giovanni’s patients, who all appear fixed in a sort of mildly negative transference, a perpetual challenge to the analyst-sphinx (so that more patients seem to get much better only when the analyst stops the analysis!) (14)
Their mourning, caused by an accident related to the very thing this family love-the sea and sports-freezes this false movement, revealing at the same time the motionless void at the bottom of this mildly obtuse happiness. (Giovanni appears a little obtuse both as an analyst and as a father. But it is the inevitable obtuseness of modern man, loyal to the aforementioned Trinity, who believes that evil and suffering have a meaning.)
What causes this familial and professional standstill? It seems to be an allegory of a certain growing, self-complacent immobility in the analytical practice. It is as if only a mourning, a catastrophe could shake many analysts, satisfied in their fragile well-being, from their sedentary professional routine without “history”.
It is not analysis, but the catastrophe and the void, that pushes this family towards a possible “reconversion”-a family which moved about within the “sterile sport” of serenity, but without ever really stirring. Perhaps only an external trauma might make it possible for psychoanalysis to once again confront the very void from which it sprung, and which shook and moved the whole 20th century.
But how can one begin to stir from this motionless modern wellbeing, be it analytical, conjugal, or sporting? The movie does not give us the minimum clue. The conclusion is totally interlocutory. The three mourners give a couple of teenage hitchhikers a lift in their car to the French border (the girl is the one their son had courted). All three of them-each to his own, but divided by the same pain-linger on a cool dawn on a Ventimiglia beach as if waiting for something. The film ends on this group perplexity, or solitude. We do not know if or how this family will overcome the void. It is an easy metaphor: the mourning family stops at the uncertain border between past and future.
But we all, even if we have not lost a son, linger perplexed at the edge of a new Millennium-alone and with our void for company. Without Marx or Freud, the Revolution or Analysis, or Authenticity or Progress to console us. Alone before an empty sea-at once fascinating and inauspicious-which promises life as well as death.