Mere Simulation: A Review of ‘Freud’s Last Session’


David and Marybeth Baggett

Article ID:



May 9, 2024


Feb 21, 2024

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(Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers for Freud’s Last Session.)

Freud’s Last Session

Directed by Matthew Brown

Screenplay by Mark St. Germain and Matthew Brown

Based on Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain

Produced by Alan Greisman, Rick Nicita, Meg Thomson, Hannah Leader, Tristan Orpen Lynch, Robert Stillman, Enzo Zelocchi, Matthew Brown

Starring Anthony Hopkins, Matthew Goode, Liv Lisa Fries, Jodi Balfour, Jeremy Northam, Orla Brady

(Sony Pictures Classics, 2023)

Feature Film, Rated PG–13

The premise of Matthew Brown’s recent film Freud’s Last Session (2023) is almost too enticing to pass up. What if, shortly before Sigmund Freud’s death in 1939, the founder of psychoanalysis spent time with C. S. Lewis, the 20th century’s most popular Christian apologist? How would the two figures navigate their significant worldview differences? What rich conversation might emerge? How would they present their arguments and respond to critiques? What kinds of questions would each raise for the other? And of course, which position would come out on top?

It’s thought-provoking to consider such a scenario. Both men cast long shadows in Western intellectual history: Freud, in effecting a paradigm shift from humans as driven by reason and rationality to creatures at the mercy of unconscious drives and desires; Lewis, in advancing a rational defense of the Christian faith against encroaching modernism.

The film is quick to remind us that it is indeed possible these giants in their respective fields met face to face. In the last year of his life, Freud lived in London, having fled Vienna in the wake of Hitler’s annexation of Austria. And there is good evidence he met with an Oxford don in his final weeks, which coincidentally overlapped Lewis’s tenure at the university. It’s pure speculation, of course, that this young academic caller was Lewis, but the notion is intriguing nonetheless, and ideal fodder for a filmmaker’s fancy.

The crucial conflict any good story requires is baked right in. The legacies of Freud and Lewis influence us still, albeit in diametrically opposed ways. They reverberate, and clash, in the academy, the church, popular culture, and beyond. Forty years Freud’s junior, Lewis recognized these tensions, and wrestled quite a bit with the psychoanalyst’s work in his own writings. Such was the impetus behind Armand Nicholi’s excellent book, The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life (Free Press, 2002).1

Weaving the disparate threads of Nicholi’s book along with the biographical facts of the two men, playwright Mark St. Germain produced the 2009 play on which Brown’s film is based. Regrettably, the story didn’t stop there. A book, so it goes, is almost always better than the movie. In this case, sadly, the adaptation actually undermines the intent of Nicholi’s book and does it — and its subjects — a disservice. Where Nicholi’s work takes the full oeuvre of both thinkers into account and pits their ideas squarely and fairly against one another, the film puts its thumb decidedly on the scale for Freud and all that his school of thought entails. It’s an opportunity squandered. But even still, there is much we can learn from the filmmaker’s attempt to put Freud and Lewis in conversation.

On one hand, seeing the two men talking face to face is a helpful reminder that people are more than the sum of their ideas — that they have histories, exist in specific cultural and relational contexts, and are shaped by a range of factors extending beyond the intellectual. On the other, by isolating the two men in a snapshot of time, at the end of one’s career and at the start of the other’s, the film shifts the balance of the pair’s disagreements fully to Freud’s advantage. And that’s just the start of the film’s troubles.

A Lot to Apologize For. An early scene forecasts the issues that follow. When Freud, played powerfully by Anthony Hopkins, describes his imminent visitor as a Christian apologist, he adds, “He has a lot to apologize for.” Viewers hoping for serious, substantive engagement between these two titans will unfortunately have to settle for lighter fare: sound bites, low-hanging fruit, cheap shots, and emotional outbursts. The scales are tipped on subtler levels, too — such as through the casting. Recall that Hopkins famously portrayed Lewis in the 1993 movie Shadowlands. Those familiar with the earlier film might be subtly encouraged by this visual contrast to think the youthful Hopkins/Lewis, three decades hence, has matured. His childish beliefs left long behind, now displaced by the older, wiser Hopkins/Freud. Interestingly enough, Lewis the actual man traveled the opposite trajectory, from atheism in young adulthood to theism and Christianity as he aged. And he did so through sustained relationship with believers and impassioned debates that dealt with substantive issues.

What we get from Freud’s Last Session is instead an isolated conversation between two relative strangers, which is not likely the most promising context for deep mutual engagement. The movie itself bears this out. While the real-life Lewis interacted with some of Freud’s ideas, the fictional Freud seems only mildly aware of Lewis’s work. Thrust into the encounter with little common ground to build on, the conversation meanders, almost as much as the Freud character wanders around his London apartment throughout the encounter. Rather than featuring real consideration of each other’s fully fleshed out positions, the conversation often consists of the two men swapping strawmen, one-dimensional parodies of their ideas set down side by side, in a linguistic game resembling little more than verbal Tic-Tac-Toe. This simplistic plot device underscores that mere juxtaposition does not a real contestation of ideas make. That would require tackling the divergent perspectives head-on, assessing their relative merits, and weighing their implications.

Many scenes hold promise for such examination, but they often slip away too soon. For example, as the two discuss their contrasting views of faith, the filmmakers truncate and abbreviate the encounter. Indebted to Ludwig Feuerbach, Freud argues that religion is the product of the human desire to have wishes fulfilled. On such a view, we project what we long to be the case, which would make little sense of the harder doctrines of Christianity that Lewis took seriously, like that of hell or prohibitive sexual limits. In contrast to the notion that religion is merely illusion, Lewis turned such Freudian conceptions on their head with his argument from desire — mentioned all too briefly — an altogether different understanding of the relation between reality and our deepest desires as subtle markers of truth. What the filmmakers depict as a conclusion is really only the starting point for mining the richness of such ideas.

Primacy of Psychologism and Perspectivalism. Ultimately, the film is arguably most helpful as a window into our current moment, which decidedly favors Freud’s perspective. Ours is more of a psychological age than a philosophical one, more Freudian than Lewisian, more affective than cognitive. Not surprisingly, Freud’s method is allowed to structure much of the conversation of the film. Over and over again, psychologism trumps — Freud pontificating and conjecturing about the way Lewis and other religious believers need to grow up; how Lewis needs a divine father figure to compensate for a deficient earthly father; how Lewis is terrified of the abyss of death; how Lewis has yet to get over the fears fighting in World War I had instilled within him, and the like.

In a retort that seems uncharacteristic for Lewis, even he joins in with some psychologism of his own. Perhaps, Lewis suggests, it is Freud’s own fears about God’s possibility that dissuades his belief, a conjecture that seems to delight Freud who accords Lewis accolades for the maneuver. But right here is one of the film’s most significant problems. Such psychological conjectures and predictable tit for tat, though perhaps fun to play with, do next to nothing to advance discussion. Not to mention that Lewis’s modus operandi in real life bore little resemblance to such empty speculation. If the conversation, such as it is, is driven by guesswork about the underlying motivations of one’s interlocutor, substantive questions of truth and evidence go undiscussed.

The problem may go even deeper than that, manifesting a dynamic rampant in contemporary conversations: namely, there is often assumed a radical perspectivalism in dialogues of various sorts. We see it in the political arena all the time: ideological adversaries talking past each other, each attributing the perspectives of the other to their political party or rabid partisanship. Each also presumes to know the motives of the challenger, not in a genuine effort to understand and appreciate their perspective better, but to discredit and write their views off all the quicker.

And this practice is, unfortunately, what we too often find in this movie. The result is less a vital interplay of ideas than two people with incommensurable worldviews, each content to criticize the other. Better would have been a genuine quest to find some middle ground, central questions with which both men grappled, divergent perspectives on particular phenomena (like guilt or shame), and more of an effort to identify some of the evidential considerations that led each man to his own beliefs. Precious little of this hard work was done, to our chagrin and to the detriment of the film.

Hints of a Better Way. To the filmmaker’s credit, there are at least hints of such a possibility. On their way to a bomb shelter, as they brace for Germany’s bombardment of London now that England has declared war, Lewis refuses to leave Freud behind. Later, Lewis has a panic attack in the shelter, triggered by flashbacks to the earlier war, and Freud talks him through it. Their shared humanity in those moments is admittedly touching, even poignant, but it fails to bolster the quality of their intellectual exchange.

Indeed, in a move that largely vitiates the power of the earlier scene, Freud later reminds Lewis of his terror in the shelter, suggesting it showed how little real faith in God he has. Although we know of no such panic attacks experienced by Lewis, if he did suffer from them because of the trauma of war, this would hardly show a lack of faith in God. Rather, they would be emotional wounds from which he still needed healing and deliverance. Only the most simplistic understanding of authentic religious faith thinks it is an instant panacea for every instance of mental anguish or psychological impediment.

Perhaps our biggest disappointment in the film is that we expected more from the Lewis character. He has his moments of insight, but too often he responds to Freud’s passionate indictments with quizzical looks of befuddlement. Surely Lewis in real life would have fared quite a bit better. One of the more egregious examples comes when Freud pushes the problem of evil, and then Lewis takes it on himself to state the problem baldly: “I don’t know,” Lewis confesses, “And I don’t pretend to. It’s the most difficult question of all, isn’t it? If God is good, he would make his creatures perfectly happy. But we aren’t. So, God lacks goodness, or power, or both.” It strains credulity to imagine the real Lewis giving up so easily. Further, it stands in explicit contradiction with what Lewis actually said on the matter.

To be fair, the fictional Lewis does immediately add that suffering can conduce to spiritual and moral growth — an appeal to a common theodicy. Freud ups the ante, ridiculing the notion by recalling a particularly difficult case of a child’s, his grandson’s, seemingly needless and painful death. This is a juncture at which the conversation could have really gotten interesting — perhaps with references to biblical teachings about cruciformity and the sufferings that Jesus willingly endured for the redemption of the world, and the power of God posthumously to redeem the worst of sufferings in this world. Instead, Freud’s skepticism is given the last word. Nothing is said of the secularist’s own problem of evil: not how to reconcile suffering with God, but why suffering is bad at all if the world is as they describe it — a world of swirling collocations of atoms. Freud cannot both be mad at God and disbelieve in God, at least not with much coherence.

Right near the end of the movie, Freud indicates that it’s foolish to think they could settle the big questions that had been broached in one chat. But in our estimation, little effort is even made. With a few fleeting exceptions, much of the “conversation” features men of different faiths talking past each other and resting content with that. In Nicholi’s original vision, the conversation between these two intellectual giants held out promise for quite a bit more. Perhaps the stultifying constraints of a dramatic presentation made disappointment practically inevitable.

Going in, we might have known better, given the chosen title: Freud’s Last Session. Most everyone overhearing this imagined conversation will be more impressed by Freud. Hopkins’s acting, Freud’s choice lines, and the character’s passion: these all add up to an insurmountable obstacle for Matthew Goode’s Lewis to overcome. The result is less about the two in conversation than Freud’s dominance. Time and again, Lewis lets Freud assume the mantle and authority of science when, pretty clearly, Freud’s paradigm is often scientism, a philosophy of science expunged of anything spiritual or supernatural.

Carefully listening to Freud leaves one disappointed even in him — in this way, both men are caricatured more than a little. Freud’s diatribes do not cohere all that well. He’s outraged at a nonexistent God’s allowance of gratuitous evils, yet also casts humanity’s moral certitudes as the real enemy and menace. Yet the larger context — the war against Hitler and his moral atrocities — has, as much as anything else, dissuaded many from moral nihilism or relativism. Surely the Holocaust rightly affords us a measure of moral confidence.

Of course, moral rhetoric can be used to put one’s imprimatur on that which is in actuality diabolical. It sadly happens all too often. But this is no argument against moral truth. It’s an argument for greater moral discernment, the need to be on guard against such perversions — of the type found in Goebbels’ hideous propaganda implicitly denying the humanity and justifying the most horrific of actions against Germany’s enemies. Moral commitments are not the problem, despite the fictional Freud’s protestations, but moral perversity that manipulates people into dehumanizing others.

At its best, Brown’s film hints at the fruit that can result from seeing and celebrating our shared humanity and sensing the sacred in others. But sadly, it falls short of showcasing such possibilities in any compelling way. The filmmakers had an opportunity to enrich the cultural discussion surrounding Freud and Lewis and, more importantly, the crucial questions at the heart of their work. These two figures had much to say about the nature of the world and of humanity, and much to offer by way of real intellectual engagement, as Nicholi’s book draws out. But rather than vividly capturing such potential stimulation, Freud’s Last Session woodenly settles instead for mere simulation. —David and Marybeth Baggett

David Baggett is the author or editor of about twenty books. He is Professor of Philosophy at Houston Christian University, where he also serves as the Director of the Center for the Foundations of Ethics.

Marybeth Baggett is Professor of English at Houston Christian University, with an interest in promoting humanities education. Her most recent co-edited book is Ted Lasso and Philosophy: No Question Is into Touch (Wiley-Blackwell, 2024).


  1. Nicholi’s book, in turn, was based on a class the psychiatrist taught at Harvard University for more than three decades. This 2004 interview nicely captures the spirit of the class and book: “An Interview with Dr. Armand Nicholi,” The Question of God, PBS, 2004,
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