The Return of Martin Guerre
by Jonathan House, M.D.



The Return of Martin Guerre is a dark movie for dark times. You expect me to say something psychoanalytic about it and I have no desire to frustrate you. I am going to argue that The Return of Martin Guerre is psychoanalytic in the same way that Waiting for Godot is hopeful. Although Becket’s play is the single most powerful depiction of the hopelessness of the human condition in the western cannon, by my lights the play itself is hopeful.  Indeed it is the pure essence, the soul, of hope. The hope lies in these facts: Becket wrote it, it is produced and we go to see it. It is the hope of art, the hope of words and meaning, the attempt to communicate even, especially, if what is communicated is despair. So there’s the form of my argument. The Return of Martin Guerre—story and structure—is a psychoanalytic anti-Christ. 

I need to set the context, an establishing shot, and for that I need to take a step back. Back about 110 years ago at the almost simultaneous births of psychoanalysis and movies.  In 1895, in Vienna, Breuer and Freud published Studies on Hysteria. That very December, in Paris, a block away from the Opera, in the basement lounge of the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines, the Lumière brothers showed the first movie. As movies and psychoanalysis grew up together, they got into the same kinds of trouble. In 1905 Freud caused a stir with Three Essays on Sexuality and in 1908 Thomas Edison’s film The Kiss, which shows a couple kissing, caused a scandal convincing many that movies were immoral.  Being born in the same year and sharing an interest in sex may not ensure a lasting love affair, but the relationship has survived, even through such infidelities as The Return of Martin Guerre.

In its adolescence, psychoanalysis was accused of pansexualization, accused of asserting that accounting for the sexual element is essential to the understanding of all cultural phenomena.  Freud was at pains to deny the accusation.  His denials did not always ring true. These days the accusation persists but, as in so much of psychoanalysis, the term sexual has dropped out. The charge is now of pan-psychoanalytic-ization.  Something like:  “You’re always analyzing everything!  Even movies!”  This is not a frivolous matter.  There are two issues:  first, what’s psychoanalysis and what isn’t;   and second, whatever psychoanalysis is, what does it have to do with movies.

When we make a movie, or watch a movie we are not engaged in clinical psyA. The same is true for talking about a movie.  We call it applied psychoanalysis.  But what’s that?  What is being applied to what?  Laplanche doesn’t like the notion of “applied” – he says it sounds like the psychoanalysis is applied to culture the way an engineer applies physics to construct a bridge.  Instead, Laplanche uses the term extra-mural psychoanalysis, which I rather like.  He defines it as the encounter of psychoanalysis and culture.  This has become increasingly complicated as, for the past 80 years, when psychoanalysis encounters culture it also, inevitably, encounters itself.

But, as I am going to argue that this movie is profoundly anti-analytic, that the encounter of psychoanalysis and The Return of Martin Guerre is the encounter of matter and anti-matter, I’d better explain what is it to be anti-psychoanalytic, or non-psychoanalytic. 

If we deny being pan-psychoanalytic, we are left with the problem of defining psychoanalysis and it is hard to draw a boundary between what is psychoanalysis and what isn’t. This is true for different talk therapies, for the different theories of technique, for  specific clinical situations and so too for movies. 

Yet, viewed from a certain distance, the great simple outlines which define psychoanalysis stand out, or rather become visible, just as in a rock a human head or an animal’s body may appear to an observer at the proper distance and angle of vision.[1]  One such vista is from the point of view of unconscious motivation.  The importance of unconscious conflicting motivations and beliefs is fundamental to psychoanalysis.  If we change our line of sight, move a step to the left, another creature appears, this aspect of psychoanalysis is vivid, and consensually acknowleged, but is hard to capture in words.  At times, as in Jonathan Lear’s work, it has been called Eros.  It entails psychoanalysis’s originary impulse, its search for origins that is simultaneously a search for meaning.  It has the quality of faith.  I prefer to think of it as our conviction, our belief, in the liberatory power of truth.

So, onwards fearlessly to the dark, anti-psychoanalytic heart of our evil twin, The Return of Martin Guerre.

First the absence, or more precisely the irrelevance of unconscious motivation. 

Jean de Coras, the priest, is our representative, he incarnates the viewer, he directs our gaze, and articulates our curiosity.  He is more of an analyst than a priest.  He asks questions more than he renders judgment – it is another priest who administers the therapeutic flogging (then as now a common and effective alternative to Viagra).

If Jean de Coras is the analyst, Bertrande is our analysand.  It is her actions which inspire puzzlement.  They appear contradictory, irrational, symptomatic, neurotic.  The story’s culmination is a moving human tragedy but I wonder if any of you were, like me, a little disappointed at the dénouement?  The seeming mystery of Bertrande’s behavior turns out to be less of a holy mystery than an Agatha Christie – in the final scene all is explained.  It certainly can not be compared to Patricia Highsmith’s novels where the mystery and terror persist independent of the ‘solution’ to the crime and the capture of the criminal. 

It turns out that Bertrande’s ambivalence, her conflicts, her motives were all conscious. All mundane. If the dénouement moves us it is not the mystery of love but the conscious conflict with the authority of the law, the laws of God and of Society and, most importantly, the laws of ownership.  It is the ownership of Martin’s land that ultimately drives the plot.  When he returns it is to claim what is rightfully his, Bertrande is not the essential.  She saves herself and her daughter by continuing to lie – a new lie but still a lie which is a conscious deceit, ambivalent and conflicted no doubt, but the conflict is conscious and the compromise is with external social forces.  This is the first aspect of the psychoanalytic anti-matter:  the motives are conscious.  The conflict is not only conscious but it is actual (in the sense of actual neurosis) it is a conflict with immediately present social forces.


The second anti-psychoanalytic aspect, relates to the second figure emerging from the bedrock of psychoanalysis. The first was unconscious conflict, the second is libido, the search for originary truth with an emphasis on the sex. In The Return of Martin Guerre the second anti-psychoanalytic theme is the triumph of castration.  It is beating which leads to perverse potency. Martin’s limping return demonstrates the power of property, a fetish written into social relations, the equation of ownership with identity, the triumph of castration over love.  The castration is well, if tritely, symbolized in the amputation. But the triteness is necessary and supports the same end, demonstrating the authoritarian power of patriarchy’s socially approved and enforced symbols over the creativity, the fluidity, the whimsy of Eros.

As analysts we believe that, as the hidden is revealed, as the repressed is recognized, embraced, put into conscious symbols and stories, worked through and integrated, we will see the triumph of Eros, the expansion of creativity, of generosity, of the assertion of self and of love.  In The Return of Martin Guerre, the revelation of what is hidden, the revelation of truth leads to the end of loving, lusty sex, it leads to submission to power, hatred and contempt, it leads the pitiful Arnaud to shout his acceptance of the anti-libidinal laws of Church and King – which he names “justice” -  he shouts his acceptance and begs forgiveness as he marches to his death in the name of soulless property.

The movie presents itself as a true story or as two true stories, one within the other.  Both end with an execution; both tell the same anti-psychoanalytic tale.  The return of Martin Guerre was written up by the priest Jean de Coras and the outer story is his story.  In the movie, we have only the briefest account.  It is in the film but not of it, not visual but only words superimposed on the opening and closing images. The narrator who opens the film saying it is a “true story” reappears at the end portentously reciting a text in which we learn that Jean de Coras – the man of compassion and curiosity, the man who can tolerate (perhaps endorse) sexual desire, the detective, the analyst, our representative as spectator to the inner tale – this man was executed by the Church precisely for sin of approximating a psychoanalyst, or perhaps I should say, for the crime of being a pre-mature psychoanalyst, as many in my parents’ generation were accused of being premature anti-fascists.  As movies and psychoanalysis were twinned, so too, in these troubled times, there may be a twinning of the dangers of being a psychoanalyst with its emancipatory project and being an anti-fascist.

[1] with thanks to Walter Benjamin – “The Storyteller”  in Illuminations, page 83, Shocken Books, New York, 1969