A Dangerous Method, the new David Cronenberg movie — based upon the 2002 Christopher Hampton stage play entitled, The Talking Cure, (which in turn was based on the 1993 non-fiction book by John Kerr, A Most Dangerous Method) — is not only about the relationships you see on the screen between Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and Sabina Spielrein, but a breathtaking metaphor for Freud’s depiction of the mind.
A successful effort on a multitude of layers, the movie offers us a rollercoaster ride in a car filled with a motley group of historical characters in psychology and psychoanalysis. The movie depicts the life of Jung and Freud’s relationship from the time they first met in 1907 until their professional relationship collapses in 1913 — a short 6 years. I saw a screening of the movie earlier this month.
But it would be wrong to characterize this as a story only about Jung and Freud’s relationship. Instead, it’s a larger-than-life tale about the first days of psychoanalysis and Jung’s career, set against the backdrop of pre-war Europe, artfully relayed on many different levels.
The story is largely told through Jung’s fascination, treatment and eventual affair with one of his patients, Sabina Spielrein (played by Keira Knightley). She is brought to the hospital where Carl Jung (played by Michael Fassbender) works in 1904, against her will and at the behest of her father. Jung takes her case and decides to try something different than the usual treatments of the day (such as having the patient submerged in a cold bath or bloodletting). He undertakes the “talking cure” — a method he read about in a paper by Sigmund Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen).
The talking cure — what we’d refer to as psychotherapy today — was practiced according to Freud’s standard early routine of psychoanalysis. The therapist sits out of view of the patient, in order to allow the patient to more freely associate and talk about the issues in their lives. The “dangerous method” refers to the fact that, at the time, this method of treatment was largely untried and came under attack by the existing medical profession as being potentially dangerous for the patient.
For dramatic effect, therapy sequences are shortened and what might take a typical patient months or even years to acknowledge and discuss, Sabina exposes her dark secret fairly early on in a therapy session with Jung.
Jung eventually gets to meet with Freud after some correspondence passes between them. Jung’s initial meeting with him is like two lovers meeting for the first time — they talk and talk for hours (13 by the movie’s reckoning). Instant Best Friends Forever, Jung and Freud continue talking and corresponding over the intervening years.
Otto Gross, a minor character and one of the Freud’s earliest disciples, was played by Vincent Cassel. Cassel’s performance almost stole the movie. Gross was sent to be a patient of Jung’s by Freud early on in their relationship. Gross was having some troubles with substance abuse (as we would say nowadays), and Freud was hopeful that under Jung’s supervision, the psychoanalyst Gross might be helped.
But what Gross did, according to the movie, was help transform Jung’s way of thinking and cement his belief that Freud didn’t have all the answers. Gross also confessed with pride his conquests with getting his patients to sleep him. This opened the door in Jung’s mind to the possibility of sleeping with one of his patients — Sabina.
After Sabina moves away (and is technically no longer Jung’s patient), Jung gives in to his desires for her (and her for him), and they begin a torrid affair.
Freud and Jung’s relationship begins to show cracks as Jung continues to insist that sexuality must not be all there is at the core of people’s problems. There must be exceptions, Jung suggested. Freud thought that while perhaps possible, it was important to stay focused and keep to the party line. Freud also became increasingly concerned with Jung’s fascination with the supernatural and mystic. He did not believe such theories were the proper pursuit of science or his psychoanalysts.
But perhaps the relationship’s end was cemented with Freud learning of Jung’s affair with his former patient. Although Jung eventually calls an end to the relationship (forcing Sabina to contact Freud and let him know of the affair), the damage has already been done. Freud rightfully believes such relationships to be inappropriate.
That is, as they say, the surface analysis of the movie and the characters moving within it.
Underlying such a shallow analysis, however, is the deeper depiction of Freud’s theory of personality — that there is a super ego, id and ego all battling within us to help us make decisions and shape our behavior. The simplest of explanations is that the super-ego is your conscious — all that is critical, moral, ethical and just. The id is your desires and all that appeals to your basest instincts. The ego is the the organized, realistic part that tries to make sense of the id’s drive and balance it out with the super-ego’s focus on perfection and morals.
In the movie, we see this theme played out in at least two ways.
First, with Jung’s romantic relationships, we see Sabina act as the id — driving all that is instincts and violence in their sexual liaison. Jung’s wife, Emma (played beautifully by Sarah Gadon), acts as the super-ego — the perfect wife and mother of Jung’s children, living in a perfectly idealistic home. Jung himself is the ego, trying to balance his life between these two driving forces, between lust and passion on one side, and responsibility and duty as a father and loving husband on the other.
Second, with psychoanalysis itself, we see Otto Gross act as the id — suggesting all of the new “talking cure” psychoanalysis should be in the service of having patients enjoy unencumbered “freedom” (freedom from society’s norms and sexual mores, in his mind at least). Freud acts as the super-ego — setting up the ideal model of psychoanalysis with a rigid, unwavering theoretical model behind it. And again, Jung himself is caught in-between, acting as the ego, trying to satisfy the id’s desires of helping free patients from their miseries, while acknowledging the father-figure and wisdom of Freud’s super-ego.
Once you begin to see all the different ways this movie can be viewed, it takes on even greater depth and meaning. The enjoyment of the performances becomes amplified, and the story even more nuanced (suggesting a second viewing will both further enhance and explain these meanings).
Unfortunately, I was unmoved by Fassbender’s portrayal of Jung, as he seemed to play Jung with a wooden detachment that didn’t give you much to latch on to. Yes, Jung was an intellectual himself, and an aristocratic Swiss Protestant too (his wealthy lifestyle thanks to his wife). These are not characteristics that suggest an emotional or intense personality. But at the same time, I just didn’t feel the same presence on screen as I did when Mortensen or Cassel was in the scene. My viewing partner disagreed and thought Fassbender’s performance was spot-on, so I leave that for you to decide.
My viewing partner was less impressed with Knightley’s performance, suggesting she couldn’t get it out of her mind that it was Kiera Knightley playing the character. I didn’t feel the same way and thought that while Knightley’s performance often bordered on the theatrical, she was well-suited for the role. Knightley plays Sabina with all the physical tics and fits that, back then, would’ve been characterized as “hysteria” — perhaps to too great an effect, as it becomes a bit distracting whenever she’s in a scene and starts with her physical tics.
Mortensen, playing a more restrained role than you might typically expect, was delightful to watch as he brought Freud to life. Constantly chomping on a cigar throughout the movie (after all, sometimes a cigar is merely a cigar), Mortensen’s emotional range and nuances were perfect. Sometimes when playing such a well-known historical figure, it’s easy to go over the top. Mortensen never did, making his scenes more engaging than most others in the movie.
Some purists will inevitably whine about how this isn’t a realistic portrayal of Jung and Freud’s relationship, and glosses over many finer academic points. Perhaps the story too casually treated the topic of inappropriate doctor/patient behavior — that a professional such as Jung would sleep with one of his patients (keeping in mind that while the movie suggests their relationship was sexual, historically we can’t say for certain one way or another). I would just remind people that it’s a drama — in this case, a fictionalized account of a historical set of facts.
The movie is based upon a play, so don’t be surprised by the lack of action after the tumultuous opening and a few sex scenes (with brief nudity). There is, however, a great deal of two people talking on screen. Because of its intellectual nature, the movie may have a hard time finding a large audience. It will find a natural audience, however, in anyone who’s ever studied psychology seriously, and indeed in anyone who’s tried psychotherapy.
In the end, Cronenberg’s film is a historical psychological masterpiece. Would I go see this movie again? Yes, in a heartbeat. As long as you don’t confuse it with the action-oriented new “Sherlock Holmes'” films, I think you’ll be in for an enjoyable look at what Freud and Jung’s relationship might have been like.
A Dangerous Method is now playing in New York and Los Angeles and is coming soon to a theater near you.