Psychological Conflict: A Dangerous Method

The trademarks of David Cronenberg’s films have been stunningly imagined violence (Eastern Promises) and intense psychological horror, especially of the fetishistic, bodily, and carnal varieties (Crash, The Fly, Dead Ringers). In Spider (2002) he explored the schizophrenic mind through the eyes of a man given a room in a house for emotionally disturbed people after being released from a mental institution.

Though Cronenberg’s latest film, A Dangerous Method, does depict pathological behavior, its style is much less edgy and volatile than his past work. Christopher Hampton, screenwriter of Les Liaisons Dangereuses and The Philanthropist, adapted the script from his own play, A Talking Cure, and from John Kerr’s A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Freud, Jung, and Sabina Spielrein. Consequently, the film is filled with literate dialogue between the two major intellectual figures, keeping under control Cronenberg’s more anarchic visual imagination. A Dangerous Method looks more like a well-mounted, decorous, and sometimes static Masterpiece Theater production.

A Dangerous Method is mostly Jung’s (Michael Fassbender) story, delving beneath his haute bourgeois, restrained, Protestant surface to other, more unconventional parts of his self. The film charts his relationships with Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and the impact of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a young Russian-Jewish woman, on both of them.

We first see Sabina as a hysterical patient of Jung’s—body contorted, tic-ridden, barely able to get her words out, as if they are locked in her jaw. Her convulsing is over the top, but it’s generally convincing—though her acting looks strained and outsized next to Fassbender’s and Mortensen’s plain and constrained performances. Through talk therapy based on Freud’s premise that most neuroses are sexual in origin, Jung is able to eliminate her seizures and hysteria. But it seems to unlock Spielrein’s psyche too rapidly. The therapy reveals a self-hating masochist enveloped in guilt because of erotic inclinations shaped by beatings from her father, which he began dispensing when she was only four.

Jung soon enters into a passionate and obsessive affair with her. Their ferocious sexual relationship has a perverse element (Cronenberg’s forte): Sabina needs to be whipped before sex, both to excite her and in some way purge her of guilt. Jung, meanwhile, continues to have children with his wealthy, sweet, proper wife, whom he is devoted to and will never leave.

He is prodded to have the affair with Sabina by another patient—a psychoanalyst and early disciple of Freud’s, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), in whom Jung “discovered many aspects of my own nature, so that he often seemed like my twin brother,” as John Kerr writes. Gross championed an early form of anti-psychiatry and sexual liberation. He believed in sleeping with his patients and developed an anarchist form of depth psychology, rejecting Freud’s idea of the necessity of psychological repression for civilizing purposes. Cronenberg’s Gross is striking and articulate, but also self-destructive and addicted to cocaine. His role in the film is sensational, but does not shed much light on Jung’s psyche or his development as a thinker.

It’s Jung’s relationship with Freud himself that is at the film’s center. The much younger Jung starts out as Freud’s disciple, but a rift grows between them as Jung begins to explore a different kind of psychoanalysis. Their conflict is not explored in detail, but the film suggests that Jung began to see the human psyche in more religious terms and argued for the power of the irrational, the significance of coincidence, and the parapsychological. When they interpreted dreams, for example, Freud looked for symptoms of sexual significance while Jung looked for archetypal symbols.

Viggo Mortensen skillfully embodies Freud, as a cigar-chomping, self-possessed, urbane, virile, and controlling figure. He finds Jung’s deviations from psychoanalytic practice threatening; their profession and the emotionally explosive “talking cure” was already under siege (partially because it was a Jewish profession in anti-Semitic Vienna) and couldn’t afford what he viewed as Jung’s turn to the spiritual. For Freud psychoanalysis was a science.

Freud was inordinately sensitive to rejection and couldn’t bear other analysts leaving the fold. He wanted disciples who deferred, not peers who challenged him. The fact that Jung was an Aryan Protestant increased the strain. In the film Freud warns Spielrein, once her affair with Jung has ended, “Put not your trust in Aryans. We’re Jews, and we’ll always be Jews.”

Spielrein plays a significant role in the Freud–Jung relationship. We see them discuss her case, and we see that Jung’s feelings for her are more than sexual: he respects her intellectually, and they bond over their commitment to psychoanalysis. When she leaves Jung, she departs Zurich for Vienna and ultimately becomes only the second female doctor to be elected a member Vienna Psychoanalytic Society—a rarity in an overwhelmingly male and sexist profession. Freud even sent her patients. She continued a correspondence with Jung until at least 1919 and with Freud until 1923.

Spielrein is not often given more than a footnote in the history of the development of psychoanalysis, but her conception of the sex drive as both destructive and transformative, which she presented to the Society in 1912, anticipated Freud’s “death wish” and Jung’s views on “transformation.” But while Knightley’s Spielrein does talk to Jung about the theory of the sex drive and tries hard to establish her intellectual bona fides, she never quite convinces us that she could publish thirty psychoanalytic papers, in French and German, and be a major psychoanalytic figure.

That’s one of the problems with this intelligent but generally tepid film. There is a fair amount of sophisticated intellectual talk, but we never get at the essence of the theoretical differences between Freud and Jung. More importantly, the complex nature of Jung’s psyche—his need to break from a sexually repressed existence and look at the world from a different vantage point—is never illuminated. Cronenberg has a capacity for subversive imagery, which could have helped paint a better picture of Jung’s mind, but he is too restrained and faithful to Hampton’s script. One needs much more than smart dialogue to tell this story.

Leonard Quart is a contributing editor at Cineaste, and the coauthor of American Film and Society Since 1945.