Psychoanalysis (2015)

Australia / 82 minutes / color / Emporium, Windrose, Tee Pot Dir & Scr: James Raue Pr: James Raue, Julia Kelly, Adam Wise Cine: Jay Grant, Kent Marcus, Adric Watson Cast: Benedict Wall, James Raue, Ryan O’Kane, Michael Whalley, Jennie Lee, Alan Flower, Jessica Craig-Piper, Simon London, Joanna Briant, Chelsea Marriott, David Harris.

An Australian indie tragicomedy that for much of its running time is more comedy than tragedy, despite the grimness of its opening premise, but becomes toward its end genuinely quite tragic.

Psychologist Paul Symmonds (Wall) is a rising superstar in the field of suicide prevention, in recognition of which he’s honored at psychological conventions, has landed a chunky book deal and is now to be the subject of a fly-on-the-wall documentary directed by James Raue (Raue). He has devised the Engagement Technique (or Method), whereby the psychotherapist, rather than distancing herself/himself from the patient, reaches out to engage in the patient’s life.

Benedict Wall as Paul

But then five of Paul’s patients kill themselves one after the other in a single week. He’s called up before a panel chaired by Dr. Julian Barnes (Flower) to evaluate whether and for how long he should be suspended from the Psychology Board of Australia. To make matters more galling, one of the panel members is Paul’s old and bitter rival, Andrew Fendell (O’Kane).

Jennie Lee as Ally

It’s already clear that Paul is having difficulty keeping his narcissism under control. Rather than accept the possibility that there might be some flaw in the Engagement Technique—that it didn’t help the five dead patients or perhaps, even worse, actually drove them to suicide—Paul devises a cockamamie conspiracy theory: that Fendell actually murdered the patients with the intent of wrecking Paul’s career and stealing his remaining patients. James Raue and his team of documentary-makers, through painstakingly adopting no stance one way or the other on this crackpottery (after a first few mild protests), in fact encourage Paul in his delusions.

James Raue as himself

Paul tries to enlist the victims’ survivors on his side. Most slam the door in his face or chase him off, but Mrs. Pendelson (an absolutely splendid turn from Briant), mother of one of the victims, is an exception. She too, you see, has suspected that her daughter Marlena was murdered by elements reaching into the highest echelons of the Australian government, with the whole being orchestrated by the Antichrist himself, Barack Hussein Obama . . . It’s a wonder Trump hasn’t been on the phone asking her for dirt on the Bidens.

Michael Whalley as Ryan

Paul by now has as sidekick the solitary patient who insists on sticking by him, Ryan Pilgrim (Whalley), even though Ryan is quite clearly a fair number of points short of a median IQ. In order to get a more rounded picture of the case than he can from the now secretive, obviously dissimulating Paul, James also interviews Paul’s sister Laura (Craig-Piper) and a client who dumped Paul even before the suicides, Sam van Camp (London).

Matters are reaching breaking point in Paul’s marriage to the beautiful Ally (Lee). The same narcissism (this is my amateur diagnosis) that has made it impossible for him to accept that he might have been in error now makes it difficult for him to recognize quite how much of a mess he’s in, personally and professionally, and the extent to which his current actions are making things worse. Even when the hitherto fiercely loyal Ally finally has had enough and leaves, Paul still can’t quite seem to get it into his head that he’s heading for hell in a hand-basket.

Ryan O’Kane as Fendell

And then things get worse for him . . .

The movie’s makers cannot have realized back in 2015 how relevant its study of narcissism would soon become to people on both sides of the Atlantic. There’s also the strong suggestion that Paul may not be the only narcissist in the piece. Close to the end, James sits down with Paul’s arch-enemy Fendell, who bluntly tells him that so far as he’s concerned the documentary team themselves bear a great measure of the responsibility for the tragedy that Paul’s life has become: they should “own” what they’ve done through their attempts to imprint Story—a good plot—onto real life rather then pretend they’ve been merely flies on the wall. This clearly comes out of left field for James, who’s been so self-absorbed that he’s barely if at all considered the consequences of his actions. He can’t believe what Fendell’s telling him is true . . . and yet he then engineers a tacked-on (halfway-)happy ending for the story of Paul that he wanted to tell.

Jessica Craig-Piper as Laura

Alan Flower as Dr. Julian Barnes

Joanna Briant as Mrs. Pendelson

The plot of Psychoanalysis seems to have similarities with an earlier James Raue effort, Shooting Goldman (2012), written by Raue and directed by Tony Prescott (and with Jennie Lee again in the cast). That said, I haven’t seen Shooting Goldman, so am in no position to judge whether the resemblances go beyond the superficial.

The faux-documentary approach can irritate some viewers to distraction, though I myself rather like it—especially when it’s done well, as it assuredly is here. You may end up wanting to beat Paul repeatedly over the head, of course.

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