Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Freud’s Last Session (2023) dir. Matthew Brown


No film needs to be made. Some films make this more apparent than others. And Freud’s Last Session is one of those films. Avoiding both ideological substance and antagonism between its two leading thinkers, Sigmund Freud (Anthony Hopkins) and C.S. Lewis (Matthew Goode), while simultaneously avoiding a textual commitment to either’s worldview, I’m a bit puzzled at who this film is for. It’s got too much queerness to hit with the American Evangelical crowd that idolizes Lewis, too safe to attract any bibliophilic descendant of Freud, and too non-committal to intrigue the average impartial cinephile. 

Matthew Brown’s second feature film, following 2015’s The Man Who Knew Infinity, adapts Mark St. Germain’s stage play, which itself is an adaptation of Armand Nicholi’s 2002 non-fiction book The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. Unlike Brown’s adaptation, Nicholi’s book does not imagine a fictional encounter between the two 20th-century minds and instead places their writings and thoughts side-by-side to create a topically organized “conversation.” By turning abstract non-fiction into historical fiction, Brown (à la Germain) makes an artistic contribution tantamount to fanfiction. (And not the fun kind either.) 

A neutral version of this could have been interesting had the arguments of Freud, one of the world’s most famous atheist provocateurs, and Lewis, a prominent Christian apologist and the eventual author of the Narnia series, leaned into what made both men interesting in the first place. Hopkins, as expected, is excellent as Freud, even if he doesn’t have much to work with beyond drug addiction and chronic pain — and Goode is, well, good too (sorry!). Neither are permitted to lean into the actual ideas of either thinkers beyond the cursory conversations one would encounter in a skimpy Introduction to Philosophy survey course. Homosexuality arises and Lewis escapes the conversation without ever giving a clear indication of his actual beliefs on the subject, beliefs that would likely turn off much of a mainstream and secular 21st-century audience. Freud never gets into any positive ideas — that is, ideas that move beyond base refutation — and what he does say feels too sanitized to encapsulate the historical psychoanalyst’s intrigue. Just imagine what a Disney swing on Salvador Dali would amount to and that’s pretty much what you have here. A more interesting neutral version of this fanfiction might forsake the four quadrant approach and willingly isolate anti-pluralistic Christians afraid of engaging with Freud, as well as the same sort of stridently anti-religious bigot that seeks to jettison all religion from decent conversation. Isn’t intellectual inquiry the whole point of such conversations anyway? 

Make no mistake, though: Freud’s Last Session is not wholly neutral. Goode is much more likable as Lewis than Hopkins’ off-putting performance as the lifelong Wiener. (And there’s probably some historical truth to that; Freud never seemed like he would make a good friend.) The former makes more of a conciliatory effort than the latter; he even tends to Freud’s needs and cares for the sickly older man. By contrast, Freud has a clear addiction to painkillers, is a bit of an authoritarian when it comes to his adult daughter (and something of a subconscious homophobe), and sees no difference between idiots and religious people. Freud’s looming death hangs over the conversations of the afterlife and hits several evangelizing notes (without ever singing to an obviously Christian chorus) that I doubt Brown or Germain intended. And this comes as no surprise. The source material comes from Nicholi, one of the founding board members of James Dobson’s Family Research Council. The council has been deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center thanks to their homophobic commitments, which include lobbying against a congressional denouncement of Uganda’s original “Kill the Gays” bill. (Imprisoned pedophile Josh Duggar also once associated with the pro-“family values” council.) That Anthony Hopkins would lend his name to an adaptation of a work by one of the council’s founders should at least add a footnote to his storied career.  

Freud’s Last Session
dir. Matthew Brown
108 min.

Opens Friday, 1/12 @ AMC Boston Common

Joshua Polanski is a freelance film and culture writer who writes regularly for the Boston Hassle and has contributed to the Bay Area Reporter, In Review Online, and Off Screen amongst other places. His interests include the technical elements of filmmaking & exhibition, slow & digital cinemas, cinematic sexuality, as well as Eastern and Northern European, East Asian, & Middle Eastern film. 

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