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Book Review : Scenarist Sartre Takes On Freud: Meeting of the Minds

October 30, 1986|NINA LIEBMAN | Liebman is a doctoral candidate and teaching associate in UCLA's department of theatre, film and television. and

The Freud Scenario by Jean-Paul Sartre; edited by J.-B. Pontalis; translated from the French by Quintin Hoare (University of Chicago: $24.95)

Nothing so intrigues the imagination as fanciful meetings between great minds: What if Caesar talked with Einstein? How would Jane Austen react to Darwin? With the recent discovery and publication of Jean-Paul Sartre's screenplay about Sigmund Freud, such a match (if rather one-sided) is now available.

Most film buffs are familiar with John Huston's 1961 production "Freud," starring Montgomery Clift. What most of us did not know was that the original screenplay was penned by that once ardent anti-Freudian, Jean-Paul Sartre.

In 1958, Sartre began a monumental effort to depict Freud as a passionate sojourner, searching for the truth in his relationship to his father and father-figures, forever striving to understand the bewildering patterns of human emotions so that he might better understand himself. Sartre writes in the initial treatment: "The subject of the scenario is really: a man sets about knowing others because he sees this as the only way of getting to know himself; he realizes he must carry out his research upon others and upon himself simultaneously."

Over Page Limit

Huston was delighted with this depiction of Freud, and Sartre was instructed to proceed with the screenplay. Unfortunately, Sartre's enthusiasm carried him over the page limit for a feature film (to 383 pages!). When Huston responded with the requisite cuts, Sartre balked, rewriting an even longer script. At his point Hollywood exited, leaving Sartre's treatment and both versions of his screenplay to languish amid his papers for 25 years until their recent rediscovery.

Compiled into one volume, edited by J.-B. Pontalis and translated elegantly by Quintin Hoare, the book is a marvel, at once revealing insight into Freud the man, Sartre's relationship to Freudian psychoanalysis, and the modifications and transformations inherent in the screenwriting process. Freud becomes a character whose verisimilitude is based on the reader's previous acquaintance with literal biographical material and with the personal traces Freud himself left behind in his work. Like many of Sartre's literary characters, Freud is a man attached to and repelled by his father. Psychoanalysis, it seems, is almost a byproduct of Freud's quest to dispel his own disquieting filial stance.

Sartre's Freud is also, however, humorous, gentle and wise; the self-effacing Freud so readily discernible in the footnotes of "The Interpretation of Dreams" lives explicitly in Sartre's engaging screenplay.

For the uninitiated, the screenplays themselves are terrific pieces of historical fiction. For those more familiar with Sartre's existential philosophy, the work is a scholarly necessity in the light it sheds on Sartre's supposedly unbroken animosity toward Freudian analysis. It is from his stance that the editor's preface becomes the most important though, unfortunately, the most disappointing segment of the book.

Eminently Qualified

Pontalis is a French Freudian, and the co-author of a most respected psychoanalytic dictionary, "The Language of Psychoanalysis." He is eminently qualified to present and analyze Sartre's treatment of Sigmund Freud. Pontalis falls short, however, in a preface of a mere 10 pages in contextualizing the importance of Sartre's sympathetic view of Freudian psychoanalysis. By relying too heavily on the reader's prior knowledge of Sartre's theories, Pontalis robs his inherently convincing arguments regarding Sartre's change of heart of their potency. The questions raised and answered by the editor need fleshing out via footnotes or more extended definitions, so that those less familiar with Sartre's existentialism can grasp the screenplay's intellectual significance.

Finally, the volume is an excellent treatise on the transformation of a screenplay. By including the treatment, all of the first version, extracts from the second version, and a terrifically illuminating table tracking the differences among these texts, the editor provides the reader with an opportunity to follow the multifarious revisions of a typical screenplay.

In the light of Huston's film, the inclusions and exclusions of Sartre's work become even more intriguing and worthy of anaylsis, for the film is replete with scenes, images and characters originated by Sartre (who declined any screen credit), while at the same time it neglects some of the Sartrian script's most humorous moments.

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