Freud: The Secret Passion is made by John Huston’s sense of narrative posturing. In fact, he goes so far as to narrate the opening himself, relating how men like Copernicus and Darwin boldly went against the conventions of their day to help revolutionize people’s conception of the world. Into this category, he adds a third individual and with him a third frontier.
It was Sigmund Freud who effectively caused mankind to venture to “a region almost as black as hell itself: man’s unconscious.” What a bit of methodical showmanship it is and the styling is something that might only be pulled off by a man like Huston or Orson Welles. There’s a gravitas and a charisma wrapped about him that carries a certain commanding ethos. Sadly, it never has the same impact from thenceforward.
Although the subject comes with its own sense of obvious intrigue, it somehow doesn’t seem to play to Huston’s own skills, restricting his talents to a very specific arena even if it was not slated to be a straightforward biopic.
In fact, his collaboration on Freud: The Secret Passion began with a call on the talents of Jean-Paul Satre to pen a screenplay. Even though the eminent philosopher crafted the skeleton of the story, Huston ultimately parted ways with Satre because the mammoth script he provided was unshootable.
To play Freud, he brought back Montgomery Clift from The Misfits, which immediately seems a strange choice. Clift supplies a sensitivity I would have never attributed to Freud. Granted, this is based on the little I know of him from merely studying his influences on the field of psychology. That and his penchant for cigars.
Though Clift hardly seems the image of Freud nor Huston quite the man to bring the story to fruition, if nothing else, it should quash any rumors of Clift being totally sunk by the end of his career. Despite the fallow years that came following Freud, he is still the picture of distinguished vulnerability. Admittedly, the backstage complications might elucidate a different story. However, I’m not Sigmund Freud so I couldn’t tell you. I only have the film to go by.
Although the world around him appears relatively simple, the black & white baroque style accentuates the metaphors of the light and darkness at war in the human psyches. Even the eery scoring, infused with rumbling drums, denotes similarly dark caverns in the mind.
In the early years of his career, beginning in 1885, Freud starts kicking around ideas as he comes to understand the subconscious and begins to dabble in hypnosis, “a dark art” many of the most prestigious practitioners in Vienna scoff at. Their subset is embodied most obviously by Professor Meynert, who sees such ideas as being beyond the scope of their profession, “Are we theologians or physicians?”
But while Freud wants the support of his colleagues, he’s not needlessly seeking out vainglory. His research and inquisitive mind prove his guiding light. He shares a conversation with a colleague who notes what a splendid thing to descend into hell and light your torch from its fires. Thus, encouraged, Freud goes into the heart of the darkness, prepared to slay the dragons he might find there. It sounds more like witchcraft than human psychology, and I suppose in 1885 it might as well have been.
The majority of the movie is built around his work with a case study named Cecily (Susannah York); she was a patient of his esteemed mentor Joseph Breuer (Larry Parks). He passes her well-being to the care of his pupil because he has his own issues. It gets to be too much as she transfers her affection first to Dr. Breuer and then to Freud himself.
As they go deeper, Freud, using hypnosis, finds out she is infatuated with the memory of her father. Together they wade through her issues from sexual repressions, nightmares, and childhood traumas.
Even Frau Potiphar and Joseph are brought up as symbolic figures in a parable — well, it’s a case study for Freud really — explaining a bit of Cecily’s buried angst through Biblical allusion.
However, to crack his theory, he must come to terms with his own history, and it proves a taxing ordeal for his wife (Susan Kohner) who worries she might lose her “Sigi” to his work or, worse yet, one of his patients.
And still, he keeps probing — daring to wade into his own trauma to better understand Cecily. The most telling imagery comes with Clift spelunking by rope into the depths of a cave searching out his deepest memories. Finally, there is a breakthrough. Finally, he can try and free this girl from her baggage.
He brings his latest findings before the counsel of his peers once more and is jeered for his observation on oedipal complexes and the like. What’s striking is how even today though Freud formed the bedrock of modern psychology, many of his ideas are still considered dubious. They aren’t backed conclusively by empirical findings like other scientific methods.
What’s more, he loses his greatest ally. Dr. Breuer simultaneously stands up for Freud’s brilliance and personal integrity but still cannot help but walk out the chamber doors. The greatest fault of Freud, in the end, is the fact it feels like a story of little consequence on its own. We leave the man and it feels as if very little has transpired. Only with this context supplied by Huston do we attribute any greater meaning.
Huston’s final line is meant to be a telling statement. Know thyself. Our single enemy is our own vanity. Certainly, there is truth in these words. The Secret Passion is one of the more emotionally rich films I’ve seen to deal in themes of human psychology, the subconscious, and psychosexual themes, although the landscape feels generally sparse.
I am reminded of one scene where Clift’s psychoanalyst commiserates about the innocent entering a world of sin, foredoomed to this lot in life — on this earth. We might differ slightly in our interpretations here. Our world is flawed just as we are flawed. We do not come into existence as a blank slate as Locke posited. But we are doomed. Each of us has our own private conclave of demons, and we cannot heal ourselves. Once we give up our vanity and put on a cloak of humility, we often realize we need others — we need help outside ourselves.