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Analyzing ‘All of Us Strangers’ Through Sigmund Freud’s Dream Theory

A painting of 'Dreams'
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Loosely based on the 1987 novel ‘Strangers’ by Taichi Yamada, the film ‘All of Us Strangers’, written and directed by Andrew Haigh, is a fantasy film which constantly oscillates between dream and reality, blurring the thin lines between them. The plot revolves around a television screenwriter Adam (Andrew Scott) who, torn by his existential angst, lives in a skyscraper in London. He is a victim of lonely suburban existence, also undergoing a writer’s block. Leading a mundane life, spending most of his time lying on his couch eating crisps, he stares at the skyline from his window. One day, he meets his drunk neighbour Harry (Paul Mescal) who, too, is weary of the emptiness of urban life and yearns for Adam’s company. But Adam declines the offer.

The next scene cuts to next day when we see Adam attempting to write something about his childhood, ‘EXT Suburban House 1987’, he types. Immediately we see him in a train heading to the suburbs. Here onwards, the film unravels to us the inner world of Adam that is mostly a figment of his imagination or dreams.

Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud
Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud

‘The interpretation of Dreams’ is a 1899 book by Sigmund Freud, who introduces us to the theory of the unconscious with respect to dream interpretations. Freud proposed that dreams could provide valuable insight into an individual’s unconscious desires and conflicts. Dreams are a form of ‘wish fulfillment’ as they represent the unconscious desires that our conscious mind represses. In order to analyze Adam’s world of dreams, Freud’s theory seems highly feasible. Through Adam’s world of dreams, we see that he had a turbulent childhood due to the untimely death of his parents as a result of an accident. He, thereby, always longs for their company since he wishes to tell them about his journey of growing up, open up to them regarding his homosexuality and mostly the experience the feeling of home.

As a child after the accident, he never got a proper closure, he wasn’t allowed to bid a final goodbye to his parents as he was kept away from them by his grandmother, who thought it would be too scarring for a child his age back then. But at times it’s important to come in to terms with the harsh realities in order to move ahead in life. Though Adam has grown up into an adult, his mind is still fixated on the childhood memories of his parents. From the deepest corners of his mind the repressed memories of the time he spent with his parents often resurface. In order to fulfil his unfulfilled wishes, he travels on a train to his world of dreams which is a major source of his wish fulfillment as stated by Freud in his theory.

The train in the film stands as a metaphor of a time machine or a cosmic medium which transports him to a parallel world.

Freud used a technique called free association to uncover the latent content of dreams. In this process, a person says whatever comes to his mind, leading to insights about the unconscious wishes the dream represents.

This aspect of Freud’s theory is particularly evident in Adam’s conversations with his parents who hasn’t aged and look exactly the same way they looked when he was 12 years old. Through his dreams, he assumes his parents’ reaction to his homosexuality. Being from a small town family of 1980s, his mother (Claire Foy) doesn’t seem pleased when Adam first confesses his sexual preference. She thinks, ‘it’s a very lonely kind of life’ her son has chosen. Adam counters that he may be lonely but it’s not because he’s gay. Then in another conversation with his father (Jamie Bell), we learn that Adam was different since school; he wasn’t masculine enough to throw a ball no matter how many times his father taught him. His father, therefore, knew that Adam is different from the kids around him. As such he wasn’t shocked when Adam’s mom told him about their son’s homosexuality. When Adam asks his father as to why he never said anything despite hearing his son sobbing in his room, his father admits that he would have picked on Adam like the other kids at school if he was of the same age

A poster of the film 'All of Us Strangers'
A poster of the film 'All of Us Strangers'

Freud believed that the latent content of a dream refers to the hidden, symbolic and unconscious meanings or themes behind the events of a dream. This contrasts the manifest content which is the actual storyline or events that occur in the dream as the dreamer remembers them. Adam’s conversations with his parents in his dreams have embedded themes of ignorance and homophobia. He was deprived of proper love and care ever since childhood which left in him a void that he desperately seeks to fill by frequent meet-ups with his parents in his imagination.

In a parallel plot, another story brews between Adam and Harry, possibly his only neighbour whom he shunned the previous day. Adam’s conversations with Harry initially feels rooted in reality until the twist in the end where we discover that Adam’s intimacy with Harry, too, is an element of his dreams. Harry is another homosexual, estranged from his family since they don’t accept him the way he is. However, the two of them are tied together by the yearning to be loved which stems from the lack of parental love in both the cases. 

There’s a significant scene where we see an adult Adam snuggling between his parents since he couldn’t sleep at night. The camera shifts to one side so that only Adam and his mother are in the frame. His mother talks how this has been a habit of Adam ever since childhood, when he always used to be scared of murderers breaking in, rabies or nuclear war and therefore couldn’t sleep. Adam continues the conversation on how he used to plan everything as to where they would have vacationed together during his twenties. The frame when moves back…we see Adam’s father is replaced by Harry, who grabs his shoulder and comes in for a kiss.

Transference is a process in Freud’s theory, where the feelings and desires that the individual has towards significant people in their life are transferred onto the therapist. In this case, it is the character of Harry, who is shaped by Adam in such a manner that he meets his emotional quotient.

Through the film, the characters appear and disappear like reflections emerging from Adam’s dream silhouette, at times reversing the process and seemingly merging into one. This process is termed condensation by Freud, where several ideas, or people are combined into a single dream object or event. Adam’s dreams about his childhood and Harry. His fear of not remembering his past enough in reality is compensated by relocating his present through his dreams. 

Adam indulges in the process of secondary elaboration, which according to Freud, occurs when the unconscious mind strings together wish-fulfilling images in a logical order of events. This further obscures the latent content, which furthermore involves adding details or creating a storyline that connects the different elements of the dream. Adam adds intricate details by weaving conversations with his parents in his dreams. He shares with them about his love for Harry. While initially they seem hesitant, eventually they approve of the relationship. The closure which he didn’t receive from his parents in real life is received through his dreams wherein he visits his favourite restaurant with them for one last time. They tell him that he must let go off them, in order to find happiness in life. Before leaving, they inquire about the circumstances of their death from Adam and then tearfully, after, reaffirming their love towards him, they vanish.

Dreams thus acts a medium of catharsis for Adam.

The entire movie feels like a dream, or a reality extended into a dream. Andrew Haigh uses dream as a recurrent trope in his narrative because like Harry, he too, one may assume, felt like a stranger in his house while dreams seemed to be best means to cope with this eternal void. In one of the interviews Haigh states, “I think there’s a lot of things that I’m sort of throwing into this film about a child — which is still me- wanting to talk to his parents”. He channelised his longing to bond or exchange conversation with his parents through the character of Adam. In one conversation with his mother, Adam asks, “Is this real?”, And she responds, “Does it feel real?”

As viewers it feels real in a very unreal way. But again, reality is a narrative and narrative is fiction. Thus, reality is kept fluid in the film.

We see Adam upon entering Harry’s flat, discovers the latter’s body in a bathtub holding the same wine bottle that Harry was carrying on the night asking for Adam’s company. Harry’s reappearance just after Adam finds his body stating, “I just needed to not be alone” might suggest that Adam’s inclusion of Harry as an element of his dream is mainly due to Adam’s guilt — the guilt of not allowing him to let in. If he did, Harry might not have died. The way Harry died is fuzzy.

'The Interpretation of Dreams' cover
'The Interpretation of Dreams' cover

Eventually, the two men curl up next to each other in bed while ‘The Power of Love’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood plays in the background. We see a warm glow that engulfs them; they merge into a single being. The glow diminishes into a pinprick of light shining in a night sky.

In their final conversation, Harry tells Adam, “I am scared”, while Adam replies, “I know, but I am here with you”, which might be an implication that he amends for his unkind behaviour in the past through his dreams. The film explicates the shades of loneliness using shades of blue in the film’s colour palette placing it both in temporal and spiritual time and space, exploring its devastating impact on people who are afflicted by it. In a subtle way, the film, most importantly, asserts the importance of love and care, which possess the power to comfort people from the pangs of grief. It urges us to refrain from being strangers and instead, be there for each other, by helping each other to heal and thrive. Adam’s world of dreams, his desires, are therefore, manifestations of a feeling of emptiness that engulfs a modern man stuck in the banal urbanity.

All images: Google, YouTube

Srilekha is an overthinking cinephile who occasionally seeks refuge in poetry. Films, Football and Food are three fs around which her whole world revolves. Words are her antidote on bad days!!

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