The Treatment

” . . . the analysand says to his partner, to the analyst, what amounts to this — I love you, but, because inexplicably I love in you something more than you — the objet petit a — I mutilate you.

–Jacques Lacan, Seminar XI: Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis

The Treatment is a movie about four forms of love: a teacher’s love for his students, a son’s love for his father, a man’s search for a sexual partner, and an analysand’s love for his analyst. And if that combination sounds a little portentous, it really shouldn’t: It wraps all of these plots into a fast-moving (86 minutes!) romantic comedy that ought to please anyone who likes their date movies smart.

The movie, which adapts Daniel Menaker’s 1998 novel, follows Jake Singer (Chris Eigeman), an English teacher at an exclusive New York City prep school, in his attempt to recover from the news that his former girlfriend, Julia (Stephanie March), is engaged to be married. That he still seems to stalk her doesn’t bode well, nor does his apparent belief that a sticky paean to their time together teaching English in a foreign country makes for an appropriate engagement-party speech.

At Julia’s prompting, he enters into analysis with one Ernesto Morales, described on the movie cover as the “therapist from hell” and as a “maniacal Argentine-Freudian”. Shortly thereafter, he meets a widowed socialite, Allegra Marshall (Famke Janssen), and the acerbic Dr. Morales goads/impedes Jake and Allegra’s ultimate union.

If you take that description at face value, then The Treatment plays as a standard-issue indie romantic comedy. Jake moons about Allegra, ambivalent about their differing social class and the fact that she’s on the board of the private school where he teaches literature. (The teaching scenes in this movie are howlingly funny, albeit probably unintentional. Let’s just say that they make The Dead Poets’ Society look like a scrupulously accurate model of good pedagogy.)

Meanwhile, his analyst asks him such questions as, “Which sexual positions did you use? . . . You did fuck, didn’t you? . . . Did she have a climax?” He coaches Jake on Valentine’s Day etiquette, and generally gets his patient worked up into such a frenzy that he begins to see Dr. Morales even when he’s having sex with Allegra. Ultimately, however, because Jake and Allegra are able to sustain a relationship, the movie fulfills its generic expectation: the boy gets the girl.

I think it’s fair to ask, however, whether Dr. Morales (played with high zest by Ian Holm) is in fact as sadistic as all that. It’s certainly the case that Jake experiences his doctor as inexplicable and cruel. Morales equates the passive voice with “a way of concealing your own testicles lest someone cut them off”, and openly mocks Jake’s inability to keep a woman. He proclaims himself the last true Freudian, which apparently means that he models himself after Dora-era Freud: belligerent and directive, not at all the passive screen for a patient’s fantasies.

What’s ingenious about Rudavsky’s and Holm’s presentation of Dr. Morales is that his ludicrously aggressive commentary can be read as a kind of metaphorical expression of the experience of transference in analysis. Transference is the affect that an analysand, or patient, feels during an analysis for the analyst. (“Countertransference” is the affect that goes the other way.) Transference is a subtle, complex concept, accounted for in quite different ways by different psychoanalytic schools.

Usually, though, analysts agree that transference involves a kind of mistake: The analysand feels for the analyst an emotion that is disproportionate, or that is better directed somewhere else, or that is resurrected from some long-past event and displaced onto the analyst. Transference is both the engine of, and a key impediment to, analysis.

An analysis can take years; Rudavsky has 86 minutes. How, then, to represent the outsized place an analyst holds in his analysand’s psyche? By transforming him into a monstrous presence, one who trangresses all manner of boundaries and takes up permanent residence over the patient’s shoulder. This is a highly effective strategy, at once witty and psychologically acute. It even keeps the movie from veering into sheer sentimentality, as Holm pops up at the most inopportune moments.

The Treatment is a New York novel — the intellectual and social milieu it describes is really only possible there. And while the movie simplifies aspects of Jake’s life (and, oddly, moves Dr. Morales’s background from Cuba to Argentina), Rudavsky has pruned it remarkably well. Rudavsky’s background is in documentary, but he demonstrates here a shrewd knack for wit and love in narrative.

The cast is also excellent: Ian Holm I’ve discussed enough, but Chris Eigeman and Famke Janssen do a superb job of balancing their characters’ private conflicts with their evident, though slightly inexplicable, yearning for one another. Necessarily slightly mismatched, Eigeman and Janssen still have palpable chemistry.

I can think of only one movie that equals The Treatment‘s blend of lighthearted romance, comedy, and quasi-serious treatment of psychoanalysis: Fina Torres’s splendid confection, Mecaniques celestes (Celestial Clockwork, 1995). Both films manage to make psychoanalytic in-jokes accessible and entertaining, and, in so doing, become first-class entertainments.

The extras include deleted scenes, clips from Rudavsky’s earlier films, and a featurette of psychoanalysts discussing the film — these last are highly entertaining, although, again, not always for the reasons the analysts think!

RATING 8 / 10