Psychoanalysis has provided a ripe subject for comedy for as long as anyone can remember, but rarely has the therapist-patient relationship been subjected to such intensely comic scrutiny as in Oren Rudavsky's The Treatment, which opens this week. Adapted from Daniel Menaker's novel of the same title, the film (which won the Best Made in New York feature award at the Tribeca Film Festival last year) centers around a lovesick high-school teacher (Chris Eigeman) whose very unique, extremely dependent attachment to his oddball shrink (Ian Holm) consumes everything around him, including his burgeoning love affair with a beautiful widow (Famke Janssen). But for Rudavsky, laughter turns out to be the path to insight: The director chose to make this comedy in order to present an honest vision of what goes on in an analyst's office. As if to prove this point, he has shown his film to therapists' groups — an odd choice, given that Holm's character in the film, Dr. Ernesto Morales, is an outsize comic creation whose methods may well be considered actionable by some. Luckily, the shrinks seem to have enjoyed the film as much as we did. We spoke to the New York–based filmmaker about his own experiences with analysis, and why New Yorkers are particularly drawn to therapy.
So, you actually dedicated the movie to your shrink?
It's actually dedicated to two people — to my shrink, and also to Peter Hutchison, a filmmaking friend of mine who died in 1999. Although the film isn't an exact representation of my experience in therapy, it's still very influenced by it. Not so much in the dialogue, but in the details of what happens in a therapist's office: The way they open the door, the way they walk across the floor, the silences, the looks. All of that subtext comes from my own therapy. Except I never took a walk in the park with my therapist.
And you've shown the film to other psychoanalysts as well?
Oh, absolutely. Every year there's something called the American Psychoanalytic Association National Convention, when thousands of psychoanalysts and therapists and mental-health workers descend on New York, to the Waldorf Hotel. They have these huge conferences and events, and I was invited to show scenes from my film to an audience of over 400 psychoanalysts. That was a remarkable experience.
What were their responses like?
There was a whole range of feelings. Most of them felt it captured something very honest about their work. Some of them had comments that were so overly intellectual that I still don't understand them. And of course some of the more uptight analysts thought I didn't accurately portray what goes on in their office, because the film has these comic elements. Somebody asked, "When is somebody going to do a serious film about the sacred work that we do?" I admit I sort of laughed that off, because I come from the documentary world, and I know that often the most "serious" films about something aren't all that serious. Which is really my elaborate way of saying: When you look for a therapist, look for one with a sense of humor. Because it's through the humor that I think you understand what the process is about.
But the film does present a very stylized, somewhat exaggerated vision of the psychoanalytic relationship.
Some people think the film is a caricature of what goes on in the analyst's office. It might be on one level, but on another level I believe that it's accurate. In fact, when I first started thinking about doing a film about psychoanalysis, I had the idea of literally setting up the camera in my own therapist's office. I asked him if I could at some point and was greeted with, "Well, why would you like to do that?" We never got to an actual answer to the question, and I never got to set up my camera.
How did you chance upon Dan Menaker's novel?
The idea of filming my own analysis led me to start interviewing people about their own experiences in therapy, and I had this idea — which I still might do — of mixing real people's stories of analysis with dramatized sequences. But it was proving very difficult to put all those pieces together, and right around then my friend Melissa Bank [author of A Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing ] introduced me to the book of The Treatment. I immediately fell in love with the character of Dr. Ernesto Morales that Daniel Menaker created. And I found that I was laughing too much not to want to make the book into a movie.
So, what is it about New Yorkers that make us so drawn to analysis?
New Yorkers, like people in many of the great cities, are often here because they've left someplace else and are trying to make it in some way that's particularly challenging. I mean, whether you're trying to become a filmmaker, a writer, or a Wall Street investment banker — those pursuits cause a lot of stress. Also, people who leave their hometowns and come here are searching — for themselves, for understanding, for a better engagement with the world. And therapy can help with that. When it's working, it's extremely hard, but it's also very self-revealing.
You won the Made in New York narrative feature award at Tribeca last year. Is it weird to be releasing your film at the same time as this year's festival?
I guess we're competing for an audience. When the film played at Tribeca last year, all our screenings sold out, so now I have this mixed feeling about it, where I'm thinking, Oh, the audience already saw it and they're not going to come back. But I'm hoping it's actually like having six Chinese restaurants on the same corner: It actually makes for more business rather than less business. But I guess we'll have to wait and find out if that's actually true. —Bilge Ebiri