All Divided Selves: Berlin Film Review

Uncompromising and fragmented avant-garde documentary on a maverick psychoanalyst.

Filmmaker Luke Fowler's documentary is an uncompromising look at Scotland's seminal psychoanalyst R.D. Laing.

Infuriating and dazzling in roughly equal measure, All Divided Selves is a wildly experimental documentary on Scotland's seminal psychiatrist-philosopher-polymath of the 1960s and '70s, R.D. Laing. A considerable celebrity in his day, Laing's fame has dimmed since his 1989 death but he remains a figure of interest and controversy for many. Director/editor Luke Fowler's jagged collage vividly chronicles the provocative Glaswegian's life and times even as it awkwardly straddles the worlds of gallery-installation and cinema -- at the Berlinale, it played simultaneously in both arenas. Boldly confrontational in its avant-garde approach, Fowler's debut feature-length effort is suitable for the most adventurously highbrow of festivals and TV networks with suitable late-night berths.

"The craziness was all around," Laing says of a mental hospital he visited early in his researches, "and certainly was not confined to the patients." These radical views about psychiatry and society's treatment of the mentally 'ill' made him something akin to a household name for a time -- his 1960 study The Divided Self became an international crossover bestseller and an inevitable fixture on the bookshelves of bohemian and counter-cultural apartments. "Ronnie" Laing wholeheartedly embraced his unlikely fame, appearing regularly on television - including the most mainstream British talk-shows - and later branching out into theatre, teleplays, vaudeville revues and even an album of songs.

The multi-format fruits of Fowler's archive-raids are here sliced and diced into a bewildering bombardment of images and sounds -- along with some materials only marginally connected with Laing. These include, most questionably and self-indulgently, the director's own home-movie footage, suggesting a possible therapeutic element at play. Working in a similar edgy vein to fellow Scot Duncan Campbell (Bernadette), Fowler -- expanding on themes explored in his 28-minute What You See is Where You’re At (2001) -- freely takes his inspiration from Laing's own philosophies and practices, zapping from idea to idea in an elliptical frenzy that defies us to keep up. On more than one occasion he takes alienation techniques to their limit, cutting off or minimizing sound for minutes at a time while the archival visuals play on. Elsewhere he interpolates extracts from Scottish folk-songs to calmingly haunting effect.

Overall it's an audacious, sometimes foolhardy approach but one which is held together by the force of Laing's fascinating, multi-faceted personality. A natural on camera, magnetic speaker Laing renders complex psychiatric terminology in layman's language -- as when he explains how 'schizophrenia' (one of his main preoccupations) literally means "broken hearted."

Laing's boundary-smashing career has a distinct stranger-than-fiction air at times, though its wilder aspects do make sense within the volatile, anything-goes cultural and political context of 1970s Britain -- an era rendered in all its dowdy glory here. At times Laing's resemblance to Michael Sheen is a striking one, suggesting a possible future Laing biopic -- no doubt more orthodox and approachable than Fowler's bizarre objet d'art, but also much less "Laingian."

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum Expanded)

Production companies: The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd; Gisela Capitain Gallery

Director/screenwriter/editor/director of photography/producer: Luke Fowler 

Music: Éric La Casa, Jean-Luc Guionnet, Alasdair Roberts 

Sales Agent: Lux, London 

No rating, 93 minutes