Unfortunately, few filmmakers have actively taken up the possibilities that an understanding of psychoanalysis affords the cinema. Much of this is due, undoubtedly, to the place that film production occupies within a capitalist economy: the exigencies of profit place a premium on films that will appease rather than traumatize spectators. If Hollywood films open themselves to the trauma of the unconscious, they most often close this opening through their denouements. As a result, most commercial films show us how we can subdue and master trauma, not, as psychoanalysis has it, how trauma subdues and masters us. Films about psychoanalysis, including John Huston's Freud (1962) and Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945), deal with psychoanalysis on the level of their content rather than integrating it into their form (though Hitchcock's film does include a dream sequence with images created by the surrealist painter Salvador Dali).
Psychoanalysis made its presence felt most directly through the development of the film noir tradition. While few noir films explicitly address psychoanalytic concepts, the narrative structure and mise-en-scène of the noir universe evinces a kind of fidelity to them. The noir detective figure is much like the analyst: he probes the underside of society—the night—in search of the repressed truth that one cannot discover in the light of day. On this quest for truth, the noir detective discovers the essential corruption and disorder of society—the absence of any purity. Hence the noir detective discovers that truth is inseparable from desire, that truth is desire itself. This structure can be seen in classic noirs such as The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Big Sleep (1946), and Out of the Past (1947), as well as in neo-noirs such as Chinatown (1974).
Despite its forceful exploration of the unconscious dimension of experience, film noir remains, on the structural level, pre-Freudian. It sustains a narrative structure that obscures rather than emphasizes the workings of the unconscious. Serious attempts to integrate Freud's ideas on the unconscious and on dreams directly into film form were confined primarily to avant-garde, nonnarrative cinema. One notable exception is surrealist director Luis Buñuel (1900–1983), who formally emphasizes the repetitive nature of desire and its constitutive failure to find its object in such films as Belle de Jour (1967), Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie ( The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie , 1972), and Cet obscur objet du désir ( The Obscure Object of Desire , 1977). In each case, the very narrative itself remains caught up in a cycle of repetition that forces us as spectators to experience the distorting power of desire itself.
Despite the importance of Buñuel to the cinematic development of the insights of psychoanalysis, perhaps no director, either in Hollywood or outside of it, has done more to develop an aesthetic on the basis of dream-work than David Lynch (b. 1946). Lynch's films depart from the structure of traditional narrative in order to follow the logic of the dream. Especially in films such as Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001), Lynch includes narrative turns that seem to defy any versimilitude in an effort to respect this logic. However, unlike many avant-garde filmmakers, Lynch does not attempt to break from narrative altogether. The spectator can always discern the narrative trajectory of a Lynch film, even though this trajectory itself may confound expectations. When characters are miraculously transformed into other characters or the laws of temporality are ignored, this indicates Lynch's attempt to construct a realism of the unconscious. One often sees montage sequences, as in Blue Velvet (1986), that do not advance the narrative but work instead to reveal the unconscious associations of a particular character. Most importantly, all of Lynch's films lead the spectator to a traumatic encounter with the spectator's own desire elicited by the film. In the act of watching a Lynch film, one has one's own desire as a spectator exposed, in a way similar to the patient on the analytic couch. Though film for a long time resisted the full implications of psychoanalysis in favor of a form that worked to quiet the spectator's desire, with the films of David Lynch, cinema finally registers the potentially radical impact that psychoanalytic insights might have on film form and on the relationship between film and spectator.
Because of their investment in cinematically exploring the unconscious, Lynch's films have produced many exemplary psychoanalytic interpretations. These works tend to see the films in terms of fantasy, repetition compulsion, or Oedipal crisis. For instance, psychoanalytic interpretations of Blue Velvet often understand the film as reenacting the fantasy of the primal scene in order to investigate the role this fantasy plays in the development of male sexuality and subjectivity. Or they see the circular structure of Lost Highway as the depiction of the inescapability of repetition. Even beyond Lynch, these are the directions that psychoanalytic interpretation often takes, but such interpretive uses of psychoanalysis are relatively recent.