Celluloid Psychology series

Introducing the new season

Celluloid Psychology was devised by Dr Alastair Smith (School of Psychology) as an antidote to the usual depictions of psychology on our screens. Each of our carefully selected films are curated and introduced by a specialist in human behaviour, who will discuss how their area of expertise can shed unexpected light on the psychological questions explored in the film.

Below some of our chosen academics share their recommended films offering their perspective on what might be familiar works, and others introduce lesser-seen gems that perfectly illustrate an idea or phenomenon.

Hear more in the Celluloid Psychology Season vodcast with Dr Alastair Smith

Recommended films

Three Colours: Blue (Trois couleurs: Bleu)

Available via YouTube
"This film by Krzysztof Kieslowski is the first in a trilogy on the themes of liberty, equality and fraternity represented by the French flag. Juliette Binoche plays a woman grieving for her husband and daughter, who died in a car crash that she survived. It is a study of grief and recovery as well as freedom, the topic of the film. Binoche tries to escape her anguish by cutting off ties to her previous life, but she cannot escape from other people. Ultimately these human connections help her on the path to recovery, reminding us of our need for social connection and showing that isolation is not the same thing as freedom.

In this time of Covid-19, the themes of loss, isolation and freedom seem particularly resonant. The beauty of the filming and acting make this a life-affirming film. I recommend watching it twice: once to come to know and love the central character, and a second time to notice how Kieslowski uses the colour blue throughout the film. Psychology gives us many examples of how subliminal stimuli can influence human behaviour and emotions. How much is our response to this film shaped by Kieslowski’s subtle colour scheme?"

Selected by Professor Jackie Andrade, School of Psychology

Trois couleurs: Bleu (1993)

Amélie

Available via YouTube
"Amélie (2001) provides an insight into the life of the French girl Amélie, who decides to devote her life to helping others. Peppered with rich fantasy and a touch of light-heartedness, the movie follows Amélie’s exploration of who she is and who she aspires to be. It showcases Amélie as a “paragon of virtue”, by depicting her striving towards justice, humanity, and transcendence, despite challenging circumstances. Throughout the movie, you can look out for Amélie’s virtuous actions and the effects that these acts have on herself and others; this includes acts of kindness, love, humour, creativity, curiosity, fairness, hope, humility, perseverance, and zest. You can find more information on virtues and character strengths at viacharacter.org/character-strengths and in the comprehensive book Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).  Movie enthusiasts will find further suggestions and commentaries in Niemiec and Wedding ‘s 2013 book Positive Psychology at the Movies: Using Films to Build Virtues and Character Strengths."

Selected by Assistant Professor Sonja Heintz, School of Psychology

Amelie (2011)

Memento

Available on Amazon Prime
"Memento
is a narratively complex and gripping film which centres on the central character’s search for understanding of his recent past. Leonard suffers from anterograde amnesia, an inability to form new memories, following an incident in which his wife was killed. His plight is an extreme illustration of the human capacity and drive to create a coherent narrative that explains (to ourselves) our experience and our behaviour. This is seen sometimes in patients with brain damage who may invent explanations for their behaviour or state (such as paralysis of one-half of the body) which seem outlandish to observers. The director (Christopher Nolan) uses many techniques to convey different perspectives (self and other) in the construction of the story as two parallel but reversed series of vignettes. In fact, we see Leonard construct the story for himself as a series of moments receding into the past. This reflects a fundamental aspect of human memory – its constructive and non-veridical nature. Our memories are not like a recording of the past. Instead, they are stories that we tell ourselves repeatedly, each time constructing our past, and its meaning, anew.

Just as Leonard approaches a resolution to his attempt to make sense of his past and present the, viewer is led to question their own understanding of events."

Selected by Matt Roser, Lecturer, School of Psychology

Memento (2001)

Festen

Available via BFI Player subscription
"Festen (1998) directed by Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt, The Commune) was the first Dogme95 film. The Dogme movement itself was a response to Hollywood's increasing production of low-quality but large-budget films. The movement took away most of the tools from the film-makers, which we are so familiar today. To mention a few, the movement did not allow adding music to the film; using special lighting; including superficial actions (murder, violence, weapons); and also crediting the director. Dogme95 constrained directors to only display behaviour on the screen - with very minimal use of film language. 

Some say that what the director directs is not the film itself, but the audience's attention. On the other hand, if the tools used to direct the audience's attention are taken away, what can the director do apart from showing us how people behave and interact? There are no music to lighten or elevate the mood and inform us "Something sad is happening, you should feel sad." or "Something bad is going to happen, prepare yourselves!" There are no special effects or lighting to tell us "Look here! This is important!"

In terms of psychology the film relies on behaviour to explore some rather interesting themes, which were taboo at the time. The film subtly dissects these psychological themes through the interactions between characters and the behaviours of individuals. This exploration centres on both individual and collective denial, but doesn't shy away from racism, hierarchy within the family and also within the society.

As a result of these topics and the minimalistic use of film language, this film had a huge cultural impact. Vinterberg simply brings us to face an unspoken subject in an unapologetically confrontational manner. He does so with a very minimal use of the film-maker's toolkit. It is not surprising then, that the film became one of the cultural milestones that brought us, the public, closer to opening up about psychological trauma."

Selected by Lenard Dome, doctoral student, School of Psychology

Festen (1998)

The Music Never Stopped

Available via YouTube
"Borrowing the title of a song, The Music Never Stopped is a story of a mother and father and their initially close relationship with their young son. This relationship was cemented through their shared love of music. As time goes on, the family, mainly the father and son, drift apart. This is due, in part, to the father’s lack of understanding of his son’s perspective on the world. Twenty years later, the film tells the story of the family being brought back together when the son is diagnosed with a large brain tumour that is affecting his long-term memory. The rest of the film focuses on Gabriel’s (the son’s) recovery through music therapy and the painful, as well as joyous, memories this unlocks for all parties.

I chose this film for many reasons. Firstly, it represents an age old story of the difficulties of attachment relationships, particularly during adolescence, between parents and young people. The film also beautifully highlights some of the challenges associated with acquired brain injury, in this instance through a brain tumour. The film demonstrates the issues associated with inhibition and also amnesia in a reasonably accurate way, more so than many Hollywood films.

While the music therapy element of the film is somewhat dramatized, it provides a valuable insight into the power of these forms of therapeutic intervention in unlocking people’s memories and emotions in a positive way."

Selected by Dr Alyson Norman, Associate Professor, School of Psychology

The Music Never Stopped (2011)

Being John Malkovich

Available on Netflix
"In this darkly comedic and wildly imaginative film, concepts of identity and the self are explored in a thought provoking and often unpredictable manner. This film tells the story of a group of protagonists who discover a portal that leads into the mind of a famous real-life actor, John Malkovich. As the story progresses, the nature of who we are is turned inside out, as a number of ideas about the concept of the self are played with and deconstructed. A couple of particularly interesting themes stand out on a contemporary revisit to this film. The first is an exploration of control, manipulation, and exploitation, which hinges off the film's central concept of being able to inhabit the mind of another person. Whilst the events of the film are fantastical and often absurd, many of the more problematic character actions are also representative of the kind of psychological abuse, violation and manipulation seen in real life interpersonal relationships. The second theme is a more positive one; an exploration of gender and sexuality, in which the ability to become another person presents opportunities for a wider understanding of the self and identity. The second theme is a more positive one; an exploration of gender and sexuality, in which the ability to become another person presents opportunities for a wider understanding of the self and identity. 

As public understanding of such issues is increasing, the exploration of them within this film can be viewed in a renewed light. Although Being John Malkovich was released over two decades ago, the themes explored are arguably even more relevant today."

Selected by Dr Stuart Spicer, Research Fellow, School of Psychology

Being John Malkovich (1999)

Our commitment to the safe enjoyment of the arts during the Covid-19 pandemic, means that this season's events are free for you to enjoy at home.

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