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Film Review: Yalom’s Cure – DVD

The subject of this engrossing biopic is the hugely influential and renowned psychotherapist Irvin Yalom. Reviewer, Finn Dempster explains what makes ‘Yalom’s Cure’ so intriguing.

Despite the title, this is a film about a life rather than a treatment; indeed, the film might more accurately have been entitled “Yalom’s Journey”. Through a combination of interviews, clips from talk-shows and lecture-halls, and extracts from the prolific professor’s many books read by the man himself, the film intertwines Yalom’s personal history with his numerous existential musings on love, death, and isolation. “Yalom’s Cure” does assume some prior knowledge of its subject, but don’t let that discourage you from watching this thought-provoking, challenging and enriching film; you’ll know him quite well by the end.

Director Gisiger’s approach to her subject’s history is ambitious and comprehensive, covering Yalom’s life from precociously well-read youth, to his ground-breaking work as a therapist, to his still-active life at eighty. Out of this emerges a picture of an undoubtedly fascinating man, whose insights are borne of decades of work, thought, and experience. Although an undoubted champion of psychoanalysis, (cue the nicely-shot metaphor of a scuba diver exploring the depths), he’s clearly no slave to its tenets; it’s refreshing to learn that Yalom, far from being an entrenched Freudian, has taken the psychoanalytical ball and run with it, incorporating the influence of classical literature into his therapeutic model and bringing a more intimate and philosophical approach to therapy.

The film gives well-deserved attention to Yalom’s pioneering work in group therapy;  he was one of the first to conduct groups for patients suffering with 2nd stage and advanced cancers (work he admits left him “shaken up”), and he cites this early work as having played a pivotal role in shaping his approach to therapy as a whole. Reading from one of his earlier books, he recounts a group member’s reflection that it had taken late-stage cancer to teach him how to live, which Yalom cites as the genesis of a “major motif” in his career. He also tells us of this group’s “first triumph”, as one group member urges another to reconcile with her estranged daughter while there’s time, to “break the cycle”, rather than leave her daughter with unresolved bitterness which she will pass on to her own child.

Perhaps this entreaty haunts Yalom, for despite the film’s reverence for its subject, he is by no means presented as flawless; indeed, a sad cycle of his own emerges. Yalom speaks wistfully about his own parent’s flaws (with Edvard Grieg’s soulful background music feeling particularly poignant here), of how his career and marriage perhaps overshadowed his role as a father, and the lingering regret we sense in his voice is reflected in the resentment which emerges during interviews with his children. Gisiger is anxious to assure us with scenes of happy family outings and meals that all is now well in the Yalom brood, but she nonetheless takes a brave risk including this flaw in Yalom’s own life, and it’s one that pays off; her honesty in showing Yalom warts and all gives us a fuller portrait of the man, whilst simultaneously underscoring Yalom’s own assertion that a journey of self-understanding is never complete.

Yalom took from Freud what he found relevant and useful. And that, perhaps, is how best to approach this film. You may not share Yalom’s complex views on, say, marriage and love; conversely, you may share wife Marilyn Yalom’s view that psychotherapy is not for everyone (her inclusion in this film is a nice touch, providing a clever counter-weight to some of her husband’s more challenging assertions). But with themes so universal, and a subject as fascinating as Yalom, there’s something here for everyone interested in the human condition. Highly recommended.

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