Freud’s Last Session (Christian Movie Review)
About the Film
It is important to preserve history, but sometimes it’s more fun to play with it. Freud’s Last Session is a “what if” tale that imagines a dialogue between Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis. Elevated by two excellent performances, it is a rare film that aims to stimulate the mind rather than the heart and to explore important ideas without proselytizing. Despite some extraneous subplots that stall its momentum, the film is a captivating portrait of respectful disagreement that seems rare in today’s polarized world.
Imagined dialogues are not uncommon in philosophical writing (e.g. Plato’s famous Socratic dialogues), but it is a novel concept for a film. The cinematic approach might suggest an evangelistic faith-based agenda, but the film doesn’t seem to be motivated to convert viewers to either position. Instead, Freud’s Last Session emphasizes the importance of being open minded, curious, and willing to grapple with life’s big questions. In fact, I interviewed director Matthew Brown and Matthew Goode (C. S. Lewis), and asked about the film’s ideologically neutral point of view (read/watch our conversation here).
Two notable quotes bookend the story. Freud recalls Einstein’s definition of insanity (“doing the same thing but expecting different results”), causing his daughter Anna to muse, “So the surest indication of sanity would be the ability to change your mind.” Later, at the end of the lengthy debate, Freud says, “What were we thinking? It was madness to think we could solve the greatest mystery of all time.” Lewis counters, “Oh, there’s a greater madness. Not to think of it at all.”
This is not a God’s Not Dead movie in which a valiant Christian apologist slam-dunks on a bumbling atheist or a Hollywood film about a sophisticated scientist who runs rhetorical circles around an anti-intellectual Christian. The film attempts to put both characters and their worldviews in their best and most articulate light. As with most real debates, audiences will likely leave with the feeling that their own champion got the upper hand, but the film suggests that the real achievement is that the conversation took place at all.
A two-hour movie that focuses primarily on two men talking requires dynamic acting to work, and this cast is up for the challenge. Anthony Hopkins is superb as an end-of-his-life Freud, balancing both the confidence and frailty that comes with age. Matthew Goode also holds his own as C. S. Lewis with a more restrained performance, polite and passive compared to Freud’s aggressive demeanor. Lewis is confident, but he is not yet the world-renowned intellectual he will eventually become. The seeds of his classic arguments (the “trilemma,” sehnsucht, etc.) all make an appearance. But they are not always articulated as fully formed ideas. Even so, Lewis is winsome and unflappable, and Goode captures the subtilties of Lewis’s almost boyish faith.
Despite being a story that relies on dialogue, the film is extremely well shot and visually appealing. Most of the runtime takes place in Freud’s home, but the set design and the color palette are immersive, and the scenes that venture outside the home effectively transport viewers into the historic period.
Several flashbacks are included for both characters, including Lewis’ conversion experience, his famed conversation with J. R. R. Tolkien, and his harrowing wartime experiences. At times, these nonlinear storytelling elements are unwelcome intrusions, but they serve an important thematic function and help ground abstract ideas in complex human experiences.
Unfortunately, not everything about this imagined verbal sparring match works as effectively as the dialogue and visuals. The film’s biggest fault is that it doesn’t seem to trust that the stimulating conversation between the two great thinkers will hold the audience’s attention. Thus, that conversation is frequently interrupted by a superfluous subplot involving Anna Freud (Liv Lisa Fries), which involves her wrestling with her own sexuality as a closeted lesbian and her unhealthy attachment to her father. While it tangentially relates to the ongoing Freud and Lewis debate, it more often feels like an ill-advised attempt to smuggle an Anna Freud biopic into a completely different type of film.
At times, it seems as though the filmmakers are simply trying to keep Anna’s character busy, such as sending her on a desperate errand to find medicine for her father, which proves completely inconsequential. The actress gives a good performance, but the decision to give her so much attention is mostly frustrating. Often when Freud and Lewis are entering exciting new philosophical territory, the story undercuts the debate by cutting to Anna bickering with her lover or teaching a class. Rather than adding interest, her subplot continually derails the main story’s momentum.
Despite the uneven pacing and subplot diversions, Freud’s Last Session is a captivating and worthwhile film. Obviously, neither character changes his mind, but the ending moments indicate that while neither has swayed the other, they’ve both benefitted from the exchange. It’s a valuable reminder that we’d likely all benefit from such open-minded, respectful conversations.
Engage The Film
Why Do We Believe What We Believe?
Most of the worldviews expressed through the film are explicit and direct. Beyond the various arguments and counterpoints themselves, however, the film makes a case that who we are and what we believe is shaped by our life experiences, perhaps more than we would like to admit.
The debate between Freud and Lewis touches on the “philosophical problem of suffering” (i.e. Why does God allow so much suffering?). Lewis gives a classic “free will” defense but also confesses that he does not know or understand why some suffering is allowed. Freud, a self-professing man of science and evidence, let’s his guard down and allows emotion to break through as he recalls the loss of a daughter and grandson to illness. He passionately declares that he wishes the cancer in his mouth instead came into his brain, “So I could hallucinate about God and seek my bloody vengeance on him!” The moment demonstrates that Freud’s skepticism is rooted in something more than science and data.
The flashback scenes, which paint a picture of two complicated individuals, are often used to contrast and recontextualize the characters’ verbal arguments. Lewis says, “You are a walking contradiction,” and Freud responds, “Well, I’m human. Inherently flawed.” Despite a theory that seemingly interprets everything as sexual, and even after challenging Lewis’ objections to homosexuality, Freud is nevertheless unable to come to terms with his own daughter’s same-sex attractions. Similarly, Lewis declares that there are more pleasures to life than sex. But despite his denials of sexual activity, the mysterious relationship between him and the older Mrs. Moore remains uncomfortable. Through these and other nuances, the film suggests that our intellectual beliefs are inevitably colored by our life experiences and feelings.
Of course, while circumstances influence beliefs, they don’t determine them. The film presents several interesting parallels, such as boyhood experiences in a forest or complicated relationships with a parent, to show how the men took different paths in interpreting those events. Freud’s Last Session is an important reminder about the complexity of belief and the importance of looking beyond intellectual ideas to the complicated human beings who hold them.
Freud’s Last Session” (releasing in theaters on December 22) is a fascinating film that imagines a dialogue between Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis. We had the opportunity to chat with director Matthew Brown and actor Matthew Goode (C. S. Lewis) about the movie’s unique approach and the importance of respectful dialogue in today’s polarized world.