In 1981, the director of the Sigmund Freud Archives, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, caused a conniption in the field of psychoanalysis when, during a talk at Yale, he accused Freud of a moral crime. In the eighteen-nineties, Masson held, Freud heard from multiple female patients about their experiences of childhood abuse (and even published a related paper). But, unwilling to believe that abuse could be so prevalent, he came to ascribe his patients’ recollections to fantasies stemming from repressed desires. (Masson got fired from the Freud Archives as a result; in 1984, he expanded his thesis in the book “The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory.”) This backstory foreshadows Kate Novack’s extraordinary documentary “Hysterical Girl” (streaming on the Web site of the New York Times, which produced it), one of ten films that are on the shortlist for the Oscar for Best Documentary Short. Neither Masson nor the controversy surrounding his work are specifically referenced—because Novack goes back to the source herself, to one of Freud’s most famous works, “Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria,” which was originally published in 1905.

“Hysterical Girl” is both a documentary and a work of metafiction, in which Freud’s view of Dora, as reported in his book, is contrasted with Dora’s view of herself. But because there’s no extant document in Dora’s own words, no unmediated account of her experience, Novack (who also wrote the film) has to create one herself—and she does so, throughout the film, with a fictionalized version of Dora, dressed and styled in today’s manner. Dora is portrayed onscreen by Tommy Vines, an actor who’s seen with a makeup artist and then a cinematographer as she prepares to be filmed. By overtly fabricating Dora’s voice, Novack comments on the covert fabrication at the heart of the story—namely, Freud’s own grossly distorted interpretation of Dora’s experience. Archives themselves are another of Novack’s subjects, and her approach to them is as original as her historical insights. She meshes Freud’s texts—which are excerpted in voice-overs (read by Brian Kelly)—with archival film footage and still images of Freud and the Vienna of his time, evoking the era of Dora’s sessions with Freud and his writing the study of her “case.”

Dora’s father, after finding a note in which Dora threatens suicide, took her to see Freud. The story that Freud tells of her in his case study, and the response that Dora gives onscreen, in her own voice, involves a summer with her parents at a seaside resort town, when she was thirteen. A male friend of her father’s, named Hans, groomed her with flowers and courtesies. He invited her to his upstairs office, for a view of a parade, and there he tried to kiss her. (Freud expresses surprise that, instead of feeling “sexual desire,” Dora responded with “disgust.”) Using animated graphics, Novack connects Dora’s escape from the office with footage of Christine Blasey Ford describing, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, her escape from the room where, she alleged, Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her. When Freud wonders why Dora continued to see Hans, Novack shows testimony by Anita Hill, at hearings for the confirmation of Clarence Thomas, expressing her fear of retaliation, and Leigh Corfman’s account, in her accusations against Roy Moore, saying, “At fourteen, I was not able to make those kind of choices.”

One of the things that I thrill to see in short films is density—an intense and rapid profusion of information, events, and images, at a pace and with a detailed compression that might be hard to sustain in a feature. “Hysterical Girl” is, in effect, a feature’s worth of ideas, emotions, allusions, references, and associations condensed into a mere thirteen minutes. The kaleidoscopic montage includes a wide range of classic and recent movies (among them “Last Tango in Paris,” “Jeanne Dielman,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” and “Black Swan”), vintage photography, vintage pornography, celebrity TV clips, stills of paintings, print ads, and news footage, which mercurially hook the main subject of the film—the denial of women’s accounts of sexual abuse—into the wider history of civic life and culture at large.

Hill, in a clip from her testimony, says she learned that her reactions were common in cases of harassment, but that it would take “an expert in psychology to explain how that can happen.” Here Novack shows an image of Freud—the expert who could have helped Dora by, for starters, believing her, but instead accused her of fantasy. In that moment, Novack strikes at the very foundations of the field of psychology, and the historical failure to believe victims which has not yet been righted. Confronted in her bedroom by Hans, Dora reacted sharply—and Freud called her behavior “completely hysterical.” Novack dramatizes Hans’s response to Dora’s accusations with a quote by Clarence Thomas from one of his hearings—“I cannot imagine anything that I said or did that could have been mistaken for sexual harassment”—and the response of Dora’s father with a quote, from the same hearing, by Senator Arlen Specter: “I find the references to the alleged sexual harassment the product of fantasy.” Novack paraphrases a horrific line from Freud’s case study: “Her ‘no’ was only a sign of the severity of the repression.” She follows this quote with a clip of Joe Biden, at the Thomas hearings, saying, to Hill, “You indicated that you repressed a lot.”

Whereas Freud considered Dora’s “hysteria” a symptom of repression, Novack powerfully portrays Dora’s vehemence, confusion, and emotional instability as a bewildered and outraged response to having her reality dismissed as fantasy. What Freud took for “hysteria,” Novack indicates, was Dora’s ever more frustrated response to her widespread and unchallenged gaslighting, just as current-day derision of sexual-abuse victims as “hysterical” or “shrill” or “unhinged” reflect the same cold and cavalier denial. “One does not write only for one’s time,” Freud enthused of his book. Novack agrees, and presents a focussed and intensifying set of clips to prove that point—of Kavanaugh again (claiming to be the victim of a “witch hunt”), followed by Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Louis C.K., Les Moonves, Jeffrey Epstein, Matt Lauer, and media personalities and politicians who have minimized or dismissed their misdeeds. In so doing, Novack links Dora to a vast number of women through the present day, and connects those who enabled Dora’s assailant to men (and some women, too) throughout history—including Freud.



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