Director David Cronenberg is an auteur of flesh cinema whose films consistently examine the psychology of sex, violence, and regeneration. Having made films such as the voyeuristic Videodrome (1983), the mutating mad scientist thriller The Fly (1986), the gynecologic Dead Ringers (1988), the drug and bug infested Naked Lunch (1991), and the Darwinian A History of Violence (2005), it was inevitable that he should and would examine Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung through his psychoanalytical lens without the aid of exploitation of genre (horror, thriller, and gangster). A Dangerous Method claims rumor as truth in its analysis of Jung’s intimate relationship with a patient. Several historical exaggerations are made, but A Dangerous Method is a sophisticated period drama constructed from carefully devised dialogues that question the role of psychoanalysis and the act of sex in humanity.
We see Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly) kicking and screaming locked inside a moving carriage. She is mad, hysterical, horrified, and sad. She is carried kicking and screaming into a hospital where Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) is to treat her. He sits behind her and takes notes while she slithers and cringes in her chair exposing her troubled past involving her abusive father. Jung becomes engrossed by the beautiful, tormented, and courageously intelligent Sabina and encourages her to study medicine and psychology. She is comforted by Jung and looks to him as not only her doctor but also her mentor.
Their relationship evolves after Dr. Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) enters the frame and discusses his polygamist lifestyle and sexual theories with Jung. Jung functions as a married monogamist who believes that sexual restraint is necessary for civilized society’s ability to function rationally. Gross assures Jung, however, that sex, which is a simple and instinctual pleasure, should not be repressed but celebrated: “Never repress anything.” Sabina kisses Jung in public and asks his hand in her desired sexual explorations. He is initially reluctant, but sexual violence eventually ensues per her insistent request; Jung beats Sabina in reenactments of her descriptions of her relationship with her father.
A Dangerous Method is a constant conversation about opening doors and walking through them. Jung looks up to Freud and his contributions to the development of psychoanalysis despite the fact that he disagrees with his “interpretation of symptoms in sexual terms.” Moreover, Freud claims that Jung’s belief in occultism is flawed and unscientific. These men are battling colleagues. Jung’s goal is to ultimately defy his mentor, who he feels to be boldly persuasive and firm in his theories. Freud stands for monogamy and believes that a doctor should not have sex with a patient. Gross deems that Freud’s fascination with sex stems from the notion that Freud does not have sex. Considering Gross’s and Freud’s differing opinions on the matter, Jung gives in to the temptations provided by Sabina, who finds inspiration in Wagner: “He says that perfection can only be arrived at for what is conventionally thought of as sin. Which must surely have to do with the energy created by the friction of opposites. Not just that you’re the doctor and I’m the patient, but that you’re Swiss and I’m Russian, I’m Jewish and you’re Arian, and all other kinds of other darker differences. Only the clash of destructive forces can create something new.” Jung throws away his own ideals to explore pleasure and expand upon his perception of sex and relationships. Jung rationalizes Gross’s stance, “Why should we put so much effort into suppressing our most basic natural instincts?” Jung feels guilt and shame as his polygamy spirals out of control out of respect for his family and conservative, arguably moral virtues.
Cronenberg lets his actors perform. Cuts within scenes are few. The camera primarily maintains eye-level viewpoint at a distance, only closing in on its subjects when they are looking deep within. The range of emotions expressed in each shot of Sabina’s various monologues are fascinating; this is a daring and daunting performance from Keira Knightly who brilliantly walks the thin line between pure earnestness and professional embarrassment. Michael Fassbender is calm, yielding, and naively wise in his reading of Jung, a man who wants to explore his urges but knows that he should repress himself. Viggo Mortensen’s Freud is suave, humorous, and has the qualities of a seasoned noir detective; he prides himself in his awareness of his authority. In a lengthy dialogue scene, Jung describes a dream to Freud and allows him to interpret, which obviously gives way to Freud’s perception of Jung’s career and sexual frustrations. When Jung later asks Freud to share one of his dreams, Freud declines and responds, “I wouldn’t want to risk my authority.” The screenplay is active in its interpretation of psychoanalysis as a power struggle between doctor and patient, teacher and mentor.
It is a rarity to find a film that expresses and expands upon concrete ideas effortlessly from scene to scene. The significance here is that A Dangerous Method applies the famous theories of these men to their fictional personal lives. The film is a natural fit in Cronenberg’s canon and stands as one of his best, most mature, and tamest films. “Freedom is freedom,” Gross insists. Jung finds freedom in Sabina but neglects it. Her heart is broken through Jung’s cold efforts to end their private relationship; he seems like he is ignorant of the pain he has caused her because he only thinks of his stature in society. Rules and emotions clash. A Dangerous Method is about freedom through love versus psychoanalytical rationalism that demands one to stand above his or her emotions. The heart is a caged force of will that yearns to be free.
Bryan Nixon is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
A Dangerous Method (2011)
Director David Cronenberg
Producer Jeremy Thomas
Screenplay Christopher Hampton
Original Play “The Talking Cure” Christopher Hampton
Director of Photography Peter Suschitzky
Editor Ronald Sanders
Score Howard Shore
With Viggo Mortensen (Sigmund Freud), Michael Fassbender (Carl Jung), Keira Knightly (Sabina Spielrein), Vincent Cassel (Otto Gross), & Sarah Gadon (Emma Jung)