It is not accidental that psychoanalysis and the cinema were born in the same year. In 1895, Auguste (1862–1954) and Louis Lumière (1864–1948) conducted the first public film screening in the basement of the Grand Café in Paris; the same year also witnessed the publication of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and Josef Breuer's Studies on Hysteria , the founding text of psychoanalysis. In this book, Freud and Breuer make public their discovery of the unconscious, the central psychoanalytic concept that, in fact, inaugurates psychoanalysis as a discipline. The existence of the unconscious means there is a limit to human self-knowledge. Our desire exists beyond this limit and thus remains fundamentally unknown to us. The unconscious includes repressed ideas, ideas we cannot consciously know because they are too traumatic for us. The traumatic nature of the unconscious renders it irreducible to our knowledge: it exceeds every attempt to know it directly. But this is not to say we cannot encounter the unconscious. Freud's conception of how one encounters the unconscious highlights the importance of psychoanalytic theory for the cinema.

As Freud makes clear in the Interpretation of Dreams (1900), the dream provides us with access to the unconscious through the way it distorts our latent thoughts in the process Freud calls the "dream-work." The dream-work alters thoughts existing in the mind by condensing multiple thoughts into one and displacing traumatic thoughts onto related nontraumatic ones. Above all, the dream-work translates our thoughts into images structured in a narrative form that is the dream itself. Through this activity of translation and distortion, the dream allows us to encounter unconscious ideas too traumatic for waking life. The dream enacts a traumatic encounter with our unconscious desire. The bizarre nature of dreams thus becomes evidence of unconscious processes, which are only visible indirectly through the distortion they create. For this reason, according to Freud, the dream is "the royal road to the unconscious." (This distortion is also evident, however, in slips of the tongue, forgetting, and jokes.) In light of the importance of the dream for the development of psychoanalysis, the link between psychoanalysis and the cinema becomes clearer: this structure can be seen in cinema as the site of public dreams, a unique opportunity to examine the unconscious outside of an analytic session.

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