Adapting Plein Soleil: thoughts on transitions from page to screen

Our next Screen Talks will be on Monday 4th November at Exeter Picturehouse. Dr Sam North (Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, Dept of English) at the University of Exeter) will introduce Plein Soleil (Rene Clement, 1960), the renowned French adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr Ripley (1955).

Join the event on Facebook and find out more here.

Booking Information: Book online, call the Box Office 0871 902 5730 or buy tickets on the door (half price for students on Mondays).

Dr Sam North has written a guest blog-post for us on the film and questions of adaptation:

From the outset Plein Soleil is impressive for its vigour and energy, and its sexuality: the truly amazing handsomeness of Alain Delon, playing Tom Ripley, is immediately given a sinister slant just as pointed as his cheekbones when he finds the girl’s earring in his hand. We learn of Tom’s mission to bring home the wayward, rich Philip Greenleaf to the bosom of his family; and what interests me, from a technical point of view, is the entrenched, permanent engagement of dramatic irony which secures and deepens our involvement in the story from the moment that Tom Ripley sticks the knife into Philip Greenleaf.

It’s a stylish film: from the title sequence we are plunged into a fast, optimistic world, although not an innocent one; and the speed with which lengths of celluloid can be cut together and made to work for a seasoned cinema-going audience is part of its charm. Its deftness, its light touch – the feeling that one needs to run with this film to keep up – has the charm of Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle, which kicked off the French New Wave and went on to influence a diverse range of directors from QuentinTarantino to Wes Anderson.

My own experience in the world of adaptation – I sold novels to the film industry in the UK and in America for a number of years – has given me an understanding of what a film needs to find in a novel. Sometimes it is only an idea, or a character, and at other times, as is the case with this film, it is a fully-fledged dramatic structure – but it is always like feeding time at the zoo: a film is merciless in its chewing up of a book to get out of the text what the film’s creators believe will make the film successful, and that can be a painful and (if a book falls into the wrong hands) clumsy process. As a writer I have adapted The Wind In The Willows for the iPad ( and it was an intensely rewarding piece of work; it felt like it was a sort of ‘loving’ of the text, taking a step beyond reading it, and I am proud of the result. The medium into which one is adapting determines many of the creative decisions, but, as is so often the case with writing fiction and poetry, it is the restriction itself that produces the invention.

Come along and enjoy Plein Soleil. It is enough merely to gaze at a youthful Alain Delon.

Sam writes novels and screenplays, and lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Exeter.  Read more about Sam’s work here.

Response to A Dangerous Method from Fred Cooper

Fred Cooper is a PhD student at the University of Exeter researching the importance of the intersection between work and family life in post-1945 psychiatry and psychology. After attending our Screen Talks event on A Dangerous Method on Monday 21st October Fred has written a guest blog post for us, reflecting on his responses to the film:


On my way to see A Dangerous Method, I was fascinated to see what the film would be like – Freud, Jung, and the early days of psychoanalysis are not easy topics for mainstream cinema. I should probably be recording a generalised, impressionistic reaction, but as I know nothing whatsoever about film criticism I can warn you in advance that this is not what you’re getting.

What I intend to do, rather, is to think a bit about the part of the film which came as the biggest surprise – the character of Sabina Spielrein – and move forward to consider the dynamics of what I found to be one of the film’s most interesting motifs: the juxtaposition between patient and analyst.

I’m ashamed to admit that I’d never heard of Spielrein and, on first watching the trailer, assumed with a mystifyingly large dollop of arrogance – and a now-shattered association of Keira Knightley with vapid supporting roles – that I hadn’t heard of her because she wasn’t historically important. Certainly big-budget films aren’t above amplifying or manufacturing a sexual dynamic to inject an extra level of excitement (sex sells, as Freud probably understood). Jana’s opening remarks immediately disabused me of this idea, something confirmed throughout the film. Spielrein emerges not merely as a significant part of Carl Jung’s life but as a catalyst for his relationship with Sigmund Freud and, later, as an original psychoanalytic thinker. If anything, the film could have put greater emphasis on Spielrein’s intellectual contribution. An audience with no existing knowledge of psychoanalysis might have struggled to identify her characterisation of sexual and destructive forces as prefiguring a fairly substantial element of the Freudian canon. Freud acknowledged this debt, albeit ambiguously, in a single footnote in Beyond the Pleasure Principle:

“A considerable part of this speculation has been anticipated in a work which is full of valuable matter and ideas but is unfortunately not entirely clear to me: (Sabina Spielrein: ‘Die Destruktion als Ursache des Werdens’, Jahrbuch für Psychoanalyse, IV, 1912).”

Alongside her foray into formal academia, however, I want to consider the influence that Spielrein exercised from a position usually synonymous with passivity – the patient. This is a recurring device, present most overtly in the scenes between Jung and Otto Gross. Although Gross is ostensibly the patient, Jung has no influence at all on his behaviour, whilst Gross drives events with Spielrein forward with his admonition to ‘never repress anything’. When Jung describes Gross as seductive, he couples Gross’s unbridled sexuality with his telling Jung exactly what he wants to hear. Gross, however, is able to transcend the patient role by his qualification as an analyst – part of the criteria for which is submission to analysis oneself. The ability amongst practitioners to analyse and be analysed implies a form of intimacy and commonality – the most significant breakdown in Freud and Jung’s relationship occurs when Freud refuses to let Jung interpret his dreams. Freud, having read Jung’s dream as indicative of hostility towards himself, refuses to engage in a reciprocal acquiescence to Jung’s expertise.

Whilst both Jung and Freud and Jung and Gross inhabit dual roles in their association with each other, however, Spielrein as patient and Spielrein as analyst are temporally distinct entities. Spielrein during her patient phase clearly wields an abnormal amount of power on Jung as a man – he sleeps with her, confides in her, spanks her and claims to love her – but her affect on him as an analyst, on the development of his clinical knowledge, is not fully explored. Scientific understanding is being constructed and confirmed at Jung’s desk – with Jung himself as a receptacle of contemporary prejudices, anxieties, and theories about the mind – but also in the discourse between himself and Spielrein. Much like “Anna O”, Josef Breuer’s patient (and a prominent feminist), a fellow “hysteric” whose treatment has been argued to form the foundation stone of psychoanalysis, she was translating her visceral experience of illness into language comprehensible by the practitioner.

In many ways, this is understood to be the most authentic aspect of medicine. The doctor is in possession of a written expertise that draws on a long tradition and accumulation of knowledge and which is often mystifying to the patient. However, the patient also has an intrinsic physical and mental expertise that the doctor can only partially understand, and which he or she enters into their lexicon in adumbrated form. The clinical encounter is usually preoccupied with reconciling one to the other. In psychiatry, this has often been at the expense of the patient’s claims to truth.

What A Dangerous Method does is to encourage us to move beyond easy assumptions regarding agency, authorship and power in medicine. Spielrein is, admittedly, a remarkable example. An articulate, wilful and insightful woman being treated – and then writing – at the cutting-edge of psychoanalytic experimentation, her impact and influence are relatively straightforward to trace. Her story reminds us, however, that the accumulation of medical knowledge has always involved a dialogue, however limited. Medicine has usually been at its worst when the experience of the patient has been subsumed in the determinism of inflexible diagnoses, reductive disease models and off-the-peg treatment. It has also usually been at its best when the dialogue was democratic.


Sex, Science and the Talking Cure: thoughts on A Dangerous Method

On the 21st of October Dr Jana Funke of the University of Exeter (Department of English and Member of the Centre for Medical History) will introduce David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011), starring Viggo Mortensen, Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender. Part of the ‘Sickness on Screen’ strand of SCREEN TALKS, the film looks at how the intense relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud gave birth to psychoanalysis.

Join the event on Facebook and find out more here.

Booking Information: Book online, call the Box Office 0871 902 5730 or buy tickets on the door (half price for students on Mondays).


In this guest blog post Dr Jana Funke discusses the film and the important insights that it offers into the development of a scientific understanding of sex at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In A Dangerous Method, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) explains to his erstwhile follower and later adversary Carl Gustav Jung (Michael Fassbender) that people will still reject psychoanalysis in the twenty-first century. In a way, Freud was right, as we love to make fun of psychoanalysis: not all of us want to have sex with our mothers and sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. However, we also live in a world in which talking is believed to cure and allowing people to express themselves is generally seen as conducive to health and wellbeing. Talking about sexual experiences and desires, in particular, is something many of us love to do, be it with our friends, in therapy sessions or on television. In this sense, we are very much invested in the so-called ‘talking cure’, which is the dangerous method referred to in the title of David Cronenberg’s film.[1]

Freud did not single-handedly invent the talking cure and A Dangerous Method reminds us of this fact. The film is about the relationship between Jung and the first patient he subjected to this experimental treatment, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). As you will know from seeing the trailer, Spielrein suffered from a range of debilitating tics and fits when she was admitted to Jung’s care at the Burghölzli clinic near Zürich in Switzerland in 1904. In the film, it is only after speaking about and satisfying her masochistic desires (both with the help of Jung) that her so-called ‘hysterical’ symptoms begin to disappear. In my talk before the screening, I will speak a bit about hysteria in relation to gendered ideas about illness and sexuality, and try to explain why people like Freud and Jung thought the talking cure might work. 

I will also consider the film from a different angle. A Dangerous Method is not just a biopic about Jung and Spielrein’s relationship; it is a film about the history of psychoanalysis and sexual science more generally and this is where it speaks most directly to my own research interests. The emergence of psychoanalysis is part of a broader shift in Western understandings of sexuality as a result of which sexual desire came to be seen as something that should be studied and treated scientifically. This process begins in the nineteenth century and I am fascinated with the question of what it meant to think and write ‘scientifically’ about sexuality at that time. A Dangerous Method offers important insights here. In a way, Jung used Spielrein to gain access to Freud and to contribute to the emerging discipline of psychoanalysis. The film depicts brilliantly Freud and Jung’s changing relationship as they struggle to define the scope and aims of psychoanalysis. Whereas Jung, for instance, was interested in mysticism and keen to push the limits of acceptable scientific knowledge, Freud insisted that psychoanalysis had to be based on rigorous scientific principles. Freud’s authority and reputation were shaky – the film reminds us repeatedly that his Jewishness and lack of financial security, for instance, did not work in his favour – and yet it was he who ultimately succeeded in securing his name as the pioneer of psychoanalysis. A Dangerous Method sheds light on the more conflicted history of psychoanalysis and reminds us of some lesser-known contributors, including the radical Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell) and Spielrein herself. It also raises bigger questions that still matter very much today and that I would love to discuss after the film. For instance, what is at stake in understanding sexuality scientifically? What are the aims of therapy? And who gets to decide?


Jana Funke is Advanced Research Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Exeter. Her research interests include the history of sexuality and literature and culture in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries.  Read more about Jana’s research here

[1] The film is based on the play The Talking Cure (2002) by Christopher Hampton, which was inspired by John Kerr’s non-fiction book A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein (1993).

Response to Upstream Color from Jess O’Kane (Exepose Screen)

Jess O’Kane, who is studying English at Exeter, Editor of Exepose Screen, came to our Screen Talks events on Upstream Color on Monday 7th October. Jess has written a guest blog post for us, reflecting on her responses to the film:

I have a terrible habit of leaving things to the last minute, when I’m usually spurred on by a waning jar of peanut butter.  Since leaving the cinema a few hours ago, however, I’ve felt an overwhelming need to solidify some thoughts on Upstream Color, I think mostly for fear that it’ll vanish as quickly and vividly as it appeared.

I wish I could tell you that, like Matt, I can contextualise Upstream Color so far as to call it “posthuman” or “mythic”. It’s probably both those things, but for my part, I can only offer an instinctive reaction – which is, I think, precisely what Carruth intended.

For really, the film may as well have been silent. That’s not to disparage it; only to point out the uniqueness of its direction. Scenes meld into one, faces blur, time comes and goes in a swerving trajectory. It’s both stunningly beautiful and at times welcomingly mundane. It’s no surprise that Carruth’s style has been most often compared to Terrence Malick, with whom he shares a hypersensory palette.

Also like Malick, Carruth’s second feature is largely preoccupied with nature. Not nature in the German-bloke-on-misty-rock Romantic way, nor human nature, but “nature” meaning the endless relations and cycles that form and dissolve us and everything. At its heart is a story of disease and rebirth – a cycle that starts with a shady thief, peaks with parasitic madness, and ends with the harvesting of beautiful blue orchids. And yet for Carruth’s protagonists this proves a kind of paralysis, a state between knowing and self-knowledge. As the parasite begins to take over, self-identification becomes increasingly difficult, and their memories join and fragment. (Was it my childhood friend who tried to drown me in the indoor pool? Or yours?)

Most interestingly, this doubt affects a need for self-legislation. Kris and Jeff begin to fall back on the rituals that the thief taught them – Jeff creates paper chains absent-mindedly, Kris endlessly recites Thoreau’s Walden, a motif to which we’ll return later. These kinds of patterns are ones we’ve come to recognise as fearful, as signifying control and a loss of agency. Yet in Upstream Color, there is also a comfort in repetition, as if each action reaffirms a cycle of its own, and the ability of the protagonists to act at all.

This connective impulse is, I think, key to having the foggiest about the film. Why, after all, does the film centre on a romance? Take the enigmatic sampler, a man who seems omnipresent and irrelevant all at once, who’s pictured obsessively trying to measure a rhythm of life only he seems to understand. Stones drop, feet rub, wood chafes. All of these actions taken alone make little sense, but taken together, they seem closer to a dialect – a kind of mediation between nature and the self.

It’s perhaps unsurprising then, that Carruth’s emblem of choice is Thoreau. Thoreau’s Transcendentalism led him to immerse himself entirely in nature, living in a simple cabin on the edge of Walden Pond in Massachussetts. On the one hand, the significance of this seems fairly straightforward; here are two people whose ability to connect with the world around them has been compromised by exterior forces. Give them life, give them Thoreau, and surely they will restore.

And yet at the same time, the text is a third party; the text is not life. Literature acts as a stimulant insofar as it causes the protagonists to recall the world around them, a fact clearly displayed at the end of the film when Kris and Jeff send the book to other survivors in order to call them to arms. But it does so by cementing the relationship between self and mediator; text, parasite, orchid. In other words, Upstream Color is not quite transcendent, or at least it doesn’t appear to be. Though the cycle of parasite-pig-orchid is broken, the cycle between protagonist-mediator-reality is merely reformulated.

That said, it’s a hopeful film. It has faith in beauty and a humanistic heart unbecoming to an out-an-out sci-fi. Carruth, like Thoreau, seems to operate in that space between paralysis and salvation, never quite committing to one truth or even expecting it, but nonetheless knowing it’s there. His direction has something microscopic about it, as if he’s trying to tune into nature through colour, shape and sound. And his protagonists are willing, in the end, to bend to this new form – conscious, apparently, of something better round the corner.

Those were my instincts. All I can say is that you’d be a fool not to see for yourself.

A Posthuman Mythology: thoughts on Upstream Color

Our first Screen Talks event of the Autumn Term will be on Monday 7th October at Exeter Picturehouse. Dr Matt Hayler (Lecturer, Dept of English) at the University of Exeter) will introduce Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013)

Join the event on Facebook and find out more here.

Booking Information: Book online, call the Box Office 0871 902 5730 or buy tickets on the door (half price for students on Mondays).

Dr Matt Hayler has written a guest blog-post for us on the film and the ways in which it challenges us as viewers with a vision of life forms and cycles which does not put the human at the centre:


I can remember exactly where I was when I realized that Upstream Color was probably the most hauntingly beautiful science fiction film that I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t watching it on a TV in my front room, running an imported region 1 disc through an Xbox within weeks of its release because I loved Shane Caruth’s first movie, Primer, so goddamn much I couldn’t wait for a UK screening. It wasn’t in a cinema, with a decent screen and comfy seats and barely tasted popcorn as I focused, silently, intently, on the colours and the images and the few scant words of this posthuman fairytale – that’s a treat I’ll get for the first time on Monday at Exeter’s Picture House. Somewhat embarrassingly, I worked it out about thirty seconds into this trailer, which I watched maybe ten minutes after my first viewing as I devoured any and all information about what I’d just seen, and which basically amounts to a stream of fairly comprehensive spoilers, but only if you’ve watched the movie that it’s meant to advertise. That trailer tells you nearly everything about the story, or helps you work it through, but it does so by using words and images from the film in order to articulate things that that film just somehow made you feel.

And by now you’ve probably worked out that I don’t know how to talk about this thing. At least, not much anyway. If you haven’t seen it yet I’m guessing that you’ll probably come out of the cinema a bit baffled, hopefully impressed with some of the things that you’ve seen on screen, but wondering what’s gone on, what exactly happened in that last 90 minutes or so. I’d also guess that at that point you know, but maybe not in words yet. Upstream Color possesses the remarkable ability of telling you a story without words (nothing new) and making you comprehend it somewhere muscular, and visceral, and bloodied (something rare). After a couple of viewings and some reading I can pretty much tell you what goes on, but it’s that sense impression that lingers, is maybe stronger than what I’d try and articulate if you pressed me to discuss the plot. My body, and that bit at the back of my brain that connects me and some ancient lizard, remembers that Upstream Color is a movie about shared memories; knowledge passing across the barriers of species; the fears of reproducing; the fear of losing yourself, of losing your barriers, of schizophrenic openings up. And it remembers the colours and the pigs and the takings of places in cycles.

I’ve already used the word “posthuman” and that, alongside this bodily response, is what links this movie to my work, at least in some oblique way. I’m interested in how technologies affect us to such an extent that they interfere, often productively, with our pre-linguistic experience of the world – I wonder if the lifeforms in this movie could be considered to be technologies in some sense, extenders of agency, interruptions between actor and environment? And is that what makes it science fiction rather than fantasy (it certainly feels right to call it that)? This is certainly a film about unspeakable action and unsaid sensation.

Posthumanism, at least by one definition, is a philosophical outlook which doesn’t see humans as the centre of experience, or aesthetics, or meaning, and doesn’t see “humanity” as a fixed and coherent thing from which there might be deviation, but instead sees the human as always-already malleable, plastic. When I write about new technologies, and our intimate experience of becoming experts with new things, I start to think about posthuman ideas, about the changing status of humanity. The evolution of the biosciences promises to make the question more and more pressing over the course of this century – what will humans look like by its close? Upstream Color offers us a posthuman mythology, where characters dissolve into the world, everything can be as beautiful, or more, as love, and individuals are surpassed by cycles. The trajectories of parasites and viruses, their effects on behaviour, take on near religious significance here, but military interest in toxoplasmosis’ potential for mitigating human risk aversion lends another technological edge to the emergent behaviours of the film’s cast of flowers, grubs, pigs, and human vectors – we’ll probably be using nature’s natural hacks to intentionally change ourselves before long. Upstream Color offers, at times, a beatific vision of that work; at its heart it offers us the potential of communion in a whole host of forms.

Matt lectures in contemporary literature, theory and culture at the University of Exeter.  He researches the interactions of technologies and users, and the place of the body in processes of reading and understanding.  Find out more about Matt’s research here, and on his blog here.