For some, Sigmund Freud's name is synonymous with medical quackery and sexual obsession. But in David Cronenberg's new movie about Freud's circle of colleagues in the 1910s and 20s, the founder of psychoanalysis emerges as a complicated figure, fighting for scientific recognition in a society where he's treated as an interloper for being Jewish — and a pariah for daring to point out the hypocrisy of European sexual morality.
A Dangerous Method focuses on Freud's acolyte Carl Jung to offer a fascinating, though occasionally uneven, interpretation of the friendships that helped form the basic tenets of psychology. Like psychoanalysis itself, it's a story that appears at first to be about sexual perversion, but on further examination reveals conflicts over class, ethnic identity, and the human urge to self-destruction.
A Dangerous Method is a movie that feels like it was made by somebody who has been contemplating psychoanalysis for a very long time. So it's no surprise that Cronenberg has always demonstrated a fascination for the subject in most of his films, especially in the sexualized gore and gory sexuality of movies like Videodrome, eXistenZ, Crash, Dead Ringers, and A History of Violence. Psychology as such appears most obviously in his horror movie The Brood, where a Carl Jung-like figure urges women to "release their rage" in the form of fetus-like monsters who kill the people they're angry at. Indeed, many of the themes in The Brood emerge in A Dangerous Method, including uneasy marriages made even more shaky by the birth of children.
The film begins at the well-appointed Swiss sanatorium where Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) has decided to take on a new patient, a young woman named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly) whose wealthy family can't understand why she's always twitching, laughing, crying, and clutching her crotch in agony. Because Spielrein is articulate and educated, Jung decides to try a new therapy on her. This is the so-called "dangerous method" of the film's title, and is something that Jung read about in a paper published by Freud on what was then called "the talking cure" — essentially, the doctor talks to the patient about what's bothering her, asks leading questions, and tries to mend her psyche by getting her to figure out for herself why she is so miserable. Often, in practice, the talking cure allowed patients to speak aloud about their sexual feelings for the first time in their lives.
This is precisely what we see happen with Spielrein, who ultimately reveals to Jung that she's been suffering from horrific guilt because she used to get turned on when her father beat her. But is this kinky revelation truly what cures Spielrein, or is it Jung's gentle treatment of her and respect for her desire to become a doctor? Early on, Jung asks Spielrein to assist him in his psychological research — including helping him do a free association test on his wife, who makes it abundantly obvious that she and Jung are having marital difficulties and anxiety about having a child. In this scene, where we witness Spielrein's joy in doing respectable medical work, we are introduced to the central question of the film. Are neurotic people "cured" by gaining sexual knowledge, or social status?
Put another way: Does Spielrein gain more from Jung's respect for her as a thinker, or his willingness to spank her in a sexy way (because oh yeah, that happens, with Fassbinder and Knightly in a state of delightful mussiness in their period clothing)?
Spielrein goes off to med school to study psychology, and Jung writes to Freud about his successful use of the talking cure. The two men become friends, and their meetings form the very best part of the film. Played by a wry and restrained Viggo Mortenson, Freud comes across an aging science nerd with beautiful, sad eyes. He's obsessed with cementing his reputation as a scientist, and hopes that the young, charismatic Jung can help keep Freudianism alive.
But as we watch in a series of artfully staged conversations, Freud slowly realizes that Jung doesn't understand the stakes. "We have a difficult time convincing people of our opinions," Freud tells Jung about his small cadre of psychoanalysts in Vienna. "And it doesn't help that all of us are Jews." Jung looks at Freud cluelessly, replying, "I don't understand what difference that makes." Freud sighs. "Spoken like a true Protestant," he says.
And this isn't the only divide separating the two men's fortunes and desires. When Freud expresses sympathy for how hard it must be for Jung to support his wife and children on a sanatorium salary, Jung remarks offhandedly, "Luckily my wife is extremely wealthy." Freud simply raises his eyebrows, and in his look we see the vast gulf that will eventually swallow the two doctors' friendship. We see this gulf again after Jung has confessed his affair with Spielrein to Freud, and Spielrein becomes Freud's patient and research colleague (all the analysts in this movie analyze each other). Freud warns Spielrein, who is also Jewish, that their salvation as scientists can never come from an Aryan like Jung.
Indeed, Cronenberg's point in the movie seems to be that Jung's wealth and Aryanism prevent him from taking his work seriously. With his giant house and prominent place in society, he never has to struggle for anything. As a result, Jung winds up attenuating his scientific research with dabbles in parapsychology. He investigates psychic powers and ancient symbols (this work would later influence Joseph Campbell), and tells Freud that he can predict the future. Freud and Spielrein realize that Jung's mysticism will hurt their cause, and eventually Freud severs all ties with the increasingly eccentric Jung. Meanwhile, Spielrein winds up writing a groundbreaking paper that introduces the idea of a human drive for self-annihilation through sexual union — an idea that strongly influenced Freud's later writing in works like Beyond the Pleasure Principle.
Many pieces of dialogue in A Dangerous Method are taken directly from letters between Jung, Freud, and Spielrein, and Spielrein's paper on the destructive aspects of sexual desire was published in a prominent journal. (Spielrein and her children were later killed by Nazis in Russia.) Nevertheless, the film is one interpretation of a set of friendships whose true nature is lost to history. But it's a fresh and interesting interpretation, one that brings to life the political aspects of scientific inquiry, as well as early twentieth century social life.
The movie suffers from one major flaw, which is that we never quite understand any of the characters as people. Perhaps because Cronenberg has been immersed in the imagery and ideas of psychoanalysis for so long, it's hard for him to tell a story about it that doesn't assume his audience is already familiar with all the ins and outs of Freud and Jung's relationship. A Dangerous Method is less a narrative and more a series of vignettes that capture bits of Freud and Jung's lives without much explanatory tissue in between. As a result, the film may not be particularly persuasive or enjoyable for people who know nothing about the history of psychoanalysis and the people who popularized its methods.
But for anyone who loves Cronenberg's work, or meaty historical drama, A Dangerous Method is a treat. Visually stunning, with sumptuous sets and costumes, the movie is like a Merchant Ivory flick for intellectual perverts. The acting is terrific, and Mortenson is especially memorable as a sympathetic Freud who has been frustrated in so many ways — sexually, socially, and scientifically. And yet he pushes on, trying to unlock the key to the human mind, despite finding again and again that we are driven by social demons as much as we are by sexual ones.