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‘Freud’s Last Session’ Tames C. S. Lewis

Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis were intellectual titans of the 20th century, and their respective legacies for atheism and Christian apologetics loom large even today. What would happen if you compared, side by side, Freud’s and Lewis’s ideas on God, religion, sex, and the meaning of life? Better yet: What if we could peer in on an actual discussion between the two men?

The premise is compelling enough that it’s been explored in a 300-page book, a four-hour PBS series, a stage play, and now a movie.

I’ve read the book (Armand Nicholi’s The Question of God) and years ago attended a performance of the play inspired by the book. I enjoyed both, so I was thrilled to hear a film adaptation was in the works, featuring the formidable Anthony Hopkins as Freud and Matthew Goode (The Crown, Downton Abbey) as Lewis.

Sadly, Freud’s Last Session (directed by Matt Brown and released in theaters December 22) doesn’t match the quality of earlier iterations of this thought-experiment pairing and may disappoint Lewis fans. While occasionally intriguing and generally well acted (especially by Hopkins), the movie is mostly an existential dirge that feels more Freudian than Lewisian.

For a film ostensibly about two explosively different outlooks on the Most Important Questions, it should have oozed intensity and Inklings-esque rhetorical vim and vigor. But set as it is in the opening days of World War II and the final days of Freud’s life—and oddly interspersed with dream sequences, suggestive hints of Lewis having an oedipal relationship with Mrs. Moore, and an overplayed lesbian subplot about Anna Freud (Liv Lisa Fries)—the film has an odd, cold tone that fails to capture the lively fireworks of a would-be battle between towering intellects.

Hypothetical Meeting

Drawing more from the stage play than Nicholi’s book, the movie (rated PG-13) imagines a 1939 meeting that hypothetically could have happened—but probably didn’t. A 40-year-old Lewis visits 83-year-old Freud at his London home, where he’d fled the ominous Nazism of his native Austria.

Mere weeks before his death, an ailing Freud plays host to Lewis, whose notoriety as an Oxford don, author of The Pilgrim’s Regress, and atheist-turned-Christian might have intrigued him enough to entertain a conversation. Their meeting is punctuated by air raid sirens and news of Britain’s declaration of war against Germany, but mostly the movie follows a meandering conversation that provides a whistle-stop tour through their contrasting worldviews.

Perhaps the best thing going for the film is that it might serve as an enticing hors d’oeuvre that sends interested viewers to check out the meatier main course of Nicholi’s excellent book—where the scope, scale, and substance of Lewis and Freud’s differences are on far greater display.

It’s not that the film has no moments of intrigue. I enjoyed the section on joy and longing, where Lewis and Freud compare notes on Sehnsucht and the role of unsatisfied desire in their cases for or against God’s existence. I appreciated the way the film displayed Freud’s abundant inconsistencies and contradictions—of which he’s fully aware: “The sad irony of my life,” he says at one point, “is that I am a passionate disbeliever who is obsessed with belief and worship.” Freud’s comment would have sounded familiar to Lewis, of course, who recalls his own “whirl of contradictions” when he was an atheist like Freud: “I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing.”

One wishes that Lewis in the film would have followed this thread more, along with Freud’s other inconsistencies. But this is what frustrated me about the film. The verbal sparring between Freud and Lewis covers a lot of ground but only in cursory fashion: a few minutes on the problem of evil, a passing mention of why the Bible isn’t myth, and so forth.

The verbal sparring between Freud and Lewis covers a lot of ground but only in cursory fashion.

Further, in almost every interchange, the asymmetrical dynamics are apparent: the elder Freud is unintimidated and confident in his views, while the younger Lewis comes across as timid, holding his tongue in deference rather than retorting with oomph. I doubt that’s how the actual conversation would have played out, as Lewis had a way of respectfully going toe-to-toe with any and every contrary worldview. There’s no reason to believe he would have held back, even in the presence of someone as famous and forceful as Freud.

Unexplored Differences on Sexual Morality

As one example, there’s a point in the film where the two men are discussing sex—a topic of such divergence that it could have occupied the entire film. Freud raises the issue of homosexuality and argues it isn’t immoral. Lewis hardly musters a compelling counterargument. He only points out (rightly) the “lie” that “sex under any circumstances is perfectly normal and healthy,” and he appeals to the Bible’s sexual code running through the Old and New Testaments: “Sex is to be shared between two people who are committed to one another.” But notice the word choice here (“two people who are committed to one another” as opposed to “husband and wife”). It hardly contradicts Freud’s argument about homosexuality, and it turns Lewis into a progressive Christian who might have been “affirming” of committed same-sex unions had he lived in today’s world.

The film would have been more interesting had it entirely focused on one narrower topic of stark difference and debate, like sex. There are two full chapters (6 and 7) in Nicholi’s book that rigorously lay out the differences between Lewis and Freud on sex, pleasure, and love. Yet little of these substantive differences show up in Freud’s Last Session.

I would have loved to see Lewis discuss the important difference between repression and suppression as it relates to desire and sexual activity, for example, or highlight his nuanced distinctions between different types of loves (storge, philia, eros, agape) in contrast to Freud’s tendency to sexualize all love. An extended, substantive debate on sexual morality—between an orthodox Christian like Lewis and a materialist like Freud—would have been timelier and more compelling.

Lewis Subdued

In general, the Lewis of this film will feel foreign to avid lovers of the Narnia author. “Jack” in his letters, books, poems, and wartime BBC talks is far more whimsical, witty, assured, and joy-filled than Goode’s portrayal.

Goode is a fine actor, but I left the film feeling like his rendering of Lewis was woefully subdued. Even when he speaks true insights (taken directly or paraphrased from Lewis’s writings), they’re uttered with muted conviction and an almost hushed embarrassment. “If pleasure is [God’s] whisper, pain is his megaphone,” he says at one point (paraphrasing The Problem of Pain) when Freud ponders how the world’s immense pain can be part of “God’s plan.” Lewis goes on to suggest suffering might be a way that God “perfects” us. But Goode’s Lewis says all this in a manner that suggests he doesn’t believe it himself.

Hopkins’s Freud also has moments when you wonder if he believes what he says, even if he says it with more bombast than Lewis. Even though Hopkins sinks his (false) teeth into the role of Freud, I felt nostalgic for his version of Lewis in 1993’s Shadowlands and wished he could have somehow played both roles in this film.

Mutually Exclusive Worldviews

One of director Matt Brown’s points seems to be that the arguments of both Freud and Lewis, however set they are in their views, are only partially true and that together, in conversation, they can inch closer to the full truth. Brown has noted in interviews that he wants the film to model conversation across differences at a time of extreme cultural polarization:

There needs to be conversation. People need to be able to have a modicum of respect where you can try to listen to the other side, and maybe they might have something to offer. . . . I believe that science and religion, or call it spirituality or God, or whatever you want; they don’t have to be enemies. We don’t have to completely negate the other.

The film’s final moments underscore this emphasis on “conversation” rather than one side being right and one being wrong. On his train ride back to Oxford, Lewis opens a gift from Freud: a copy of his own Pilgrim’s Regress, with a handwritten quote from the Viennese doctor written inside: “From error to error, one discovers the entire truth.”

There’s some truth here, sure. But not all errors are created equal. Freud’s and Lewis’s worldviews are diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive: they can’t both be right. While watching a collegial conversation between Lewis and Freud has merits for what it models about good faith debating, the greater value of displaying a philosophical tête-à-tête is that it forces us to think through and ultimately choose which side we find more plausible.

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