115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Does This Still Work?: A Psychoanalytic Reading of Christopher Nolan’s Inception

Justin Clapp, University of Hawaii, Manoa

This presentation explores the relevance of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis in contemporary society by analyzing how various concepts manifest themselves within Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film Inception. The paper focuses on primal repression and repression proper to argue that psychoanalysis provides a valuable framework to discuss mental processes and the human experience. 


Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis was foundational in formulating our modern understanding of the human experience; however, contemporary scholars critical of Freud’s work have largely dismissed the field. A common point revolves around psychoanalysis being presented primarily from the viewpoint of a white male, marginalizing other groups including women, minorities, and others. While the entire field of psychoanalysis may not translate to today’s globalized society, concepts within the field provide a framework to discuss, and better understand, various mental processes.

This essay analyzes how key psychoanalytic concepts manifest themselves within contemporary culture by examining Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception. This film provides a useful lens due to its ability to incorporate complex and various psychoanalytic concepts while simultaneously being a critical and cultural success. I establish a connection between cinema and dreams by comparing the biological processes of the brain during dreaming and film watching. I apply Freud’s foundational texts to Nolan’s Inception to discern how well psychoanalytic concepts travel into and through contemporary culture. I reference a number of Freud’s works, such as “On Dreams,” “The Neuroses of Defence,” and “Mourning and Melancholia” among others. Freud stated, “The theory of repression is the main pillar upon which rests the edifice of psychoanalysis. It is really the most essential part of it.” As such, this paper focuses on how Freud’s concept of repression exhibits itself within Inception, particularly primal repression and repression proper, to investigate the strengths and limitations of psychoanalysis in today’s society. I take into account recent scholarly views regarding the film and argue that Inception effectively, although imperfectly, incorporates repression, the representation of dreams, and dream interpretation. I discuss how the film establishes a connection between the talking cure and wish fulfillment.  Lastly, I argue that the application of psychoanalytic concepts influences one’s interpretation of the film to arrive at the conclusion that the film is a commentary on the nature of both movies and dreams in granting wish fulfillment. 

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