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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA



Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT

Sliding Doors

Director: Peter Howitt
Producers: Philippa Braithwaite, William Horberg, Sydney Pollack
Screenwriter: Peter Howitt
Stars: Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hannah, John Lynch, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Zara Turner, Douglas McFerran
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1998


The story begins with Londoner Helen being fired from her job in a public relations firm for 'borrowing' the last four bottles of beer. Shocked at her sudden dismissal, she makes her way back home via the Tube. In a metaphysical twist, Helen's life splits into two divergent paths, the outcome of the train's sliding doors. In one reality, Helen makes a last minute dash and manages to slip through these doors before they close, and in the other, the doors slide shut and she misses the train.

From this point on, the film distinguishes between the two possible paths of Helen's life. The one that catches the train (Helen A) returns home early to find her live-in writer boyfriend Gerry in bed with Lydia, an old flame. In a parallel reality, the one that missed the train (Helen B) , gets mugged, goes to the hospital, and eventually arrives home to find Gerry looking as if he got a late start on his day, because Lydia had left already.              

In an intricate cross-referencing braid the film continues, juxtaposing the changes arising from one insignificant event. Helen A moves in with her supportive best friend, dumps Gerry, and builds her own successful PR business. When her emotional pain eventually heals, she becomes enamored with James, a genuinely caring, witty, and talkative man. Meanwhile, Helen B's life is all downhill as she -- hopeless and depressed -- takes on two menial jobs in order to support herself and Gerry while he shams finishing his novel and instead continues his affair.

Even though Helen A has more of a 'fairy tale' experience compared to her less fortunate counterpart, her path is also uneven and tumultuous. For example, a couple of misunderstandings between James and Helen challenge their relationship.

At the film's close, when Helen's divergent paths re-converge and another metaphysical twist leaves the viewer with a thought-provoking conclusion, Helen B, surprisingly, ends up being the luckier one.

Cinema Alchemy

Sliding Doors is a favorite in my Cinema Alchemy groups and workshops. The main theme in our explorations circles around the insight that sometimes when the worst happens, it sets us on a better path than the one we were on -- even when we have no idea there is a better alternative.   When I introduce this movie in conjunction with reflective exercises, workshop participants often develop more patience and acceptance with the ups and downs in their lives.

I observed the greatest impact of this movie with my client Sally. She responded especially to one sequence of this film. Sally arrived at one of our sessions confused and worried. The previous night she had yelled at her boyfriend Jim, which led to a big fight. My client felt bad because she saw that the small mistake he had made when they cooked dinner didn't justify her acting out in this way. Now Sally understood that the real reason for her reaction was her hurt about his plans to leave for a fishing trip with friends. This made her feel excluded and abandoned.

As we explored her reaction, Sally came to understand that her anger was a way for her to push him away while defending against her vulnerability and fear of abandonment. She sensed that it would help both of them if she apologized, but was afraid that this would make her look stupid and needy. She told me: "Jim might take advantage of my vulnerability, criticize me, and push me away. Then I would feel even worse."

As we worked with her concern, Sally started to suspect that her beliefs might be based on a father projection. But a significant shift didn't happen until I suggested that she viewed Sliding Doors . I asked her to focus specifically on two scenes. In the first scene her fear of rejection keeps Helen (A) from calling James after a separation that was based on a misunderstanding. In the subsequent scene she displays a combination of strength and vulnerability when she runs into him on the street. Now Helen expresses her interest in James even though she is nervous and not sure whether he is still interested in her.

When Sally came back for her next session, she told me that she felt inspired by the movie. I suggested parts work with chairs, while using the character Helen. I asked my client to sit in chair one and sense Helen's fear and vulnerability as it was displayed in the first scene -- the vulnerable-and-afraid-Helen-chair. This way Sally's vulnerability received a voice through her identification with the character. When I asked my client whether this was a familiar experience and invited her to speak from this inner place, she uncovered the deeper source of these feelings. There was, in fact, a connection to her father, who had frequently told her that she should stop crying, otherwise he would give her a reason to cry. After she seemed to have reached sufficient clarity about this object relation, I asked Sally to change to chair number two -- the courageous-and-strong-vulnerable-Helen-chair. Now my client "became" the Helen that she had seen in the second scene. Sally was able to sense Helen's courage to faced her fear. When I asked her about her physical sensations, she discovered a solid, strong quality in her belly. I pointed out that, although she was sitting in "Helen's chair", she felt her own strength. Once she owned this experience, I asked Sally to imagine apologizing to her boyfriend. Immediately her vulnerability arose again, but she did not push it away. For the first time, my client experienced a strength that allowed her to tolerate her vulnerability.

Theoretical Contemplations

Movie characters, with their distinct personalities and behaviors, become place-holders for the parts the client works with, either through chair work or imagery work.

Attributing film characters to inner parts helps

•  identify and distinguish parts,

•  understand their relationship to each other,

•  adopt an attitude of respectful attention to parts,

•  accept disowned parts,

•  reassign new roles to parts,

•  mediate between parts and resolving conflicts,

because they make the experience of inner parts more concrete.

In times of emotional stress, clients are usually not in touch with their strength and courage and the means by which they can access them. Through parts work, by identifying with different characters or different aspects of one character, clients can recognize that these qualities are latent and available to them, as Sally's case demonstrated. I believe that, without the aid of the movie experience, it would have been much harder for my client to recognize these capacities in herself.

Guidelines for questions

Questions and statements during parts work:

•  What movie character(s) or different aspects of one character do you identify with?

•  Let yourself "be" one character or aspect.

•  What do you sense in your body?

•  Do you experience a part of yourself sometimes this way?

•  What function does this part have in your life? How does it serve or hinder you?

•  Repeat these steps with different parts

•  When working with a part that represents a desired quality: How do you feel emotionally and physically when you sense this inner resource? Picture your life as you live this quality more fully.


Birgit Wolz wrote the following continuing education online courses:

Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.

Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.

Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.

Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)

Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.

DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.

Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy