A Dangerous Method – Sexual Hijinks mark the Dawn of Psychoanalysis

David Cronenberg is one of a trio of contemporary directors – the other two are Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson – whose early work I cannot watch. The reason is that all three started their career writing and directing horror movies…not just your garden variety horror thrillers, rather the blood and splatter types which I have no stomach for.

Happily, all three of them ‘turned the corner’ and have gone on to become directors of great acclaim. Raimi and Jackson helmed the Spider-Man and Lord of the Rings trilogies respectively to critical and commercial success. Cronenberg, on the other hand, while moving away from horror (usually depicted as a result of science gone out of control), continues to explore the physical, psychological and sexual underbelly of humanity and therefore has never gone completely mainstream. His last few films, however, have been critically acclaimed, especially in Europe. My favourites (and the most accessible – although that is a relative term) are A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, both featuring Viggo Mortensen.

So, I eagerly awaited his latest release A Dangerous Method. This is his first historical film and is based on the relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), his patient/ mistress/ fellow psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) and his mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) in the early 20th century.

This is a handsomely mounted film, lensed by 70 year old (yes, you read that right) cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, Cronenberg’s DP on all his films since the late ‘80s. Incidentally, Mr. Suschitzky forever has a soft spot in my heart as the man behind the camera of Star Wars: Ep V – The Empire Strikes Back.

The film is based on a 1993 non-fiction book A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud and Sabina Spielrein by John Kerr. Keira Knightley plays one of the best roles of her career so far, as the Russian Sabina Spielrein, who is brought to Jung’s Swiss clinic to be treated for hysteria. Jung applies the still nascent theories of psychoanalysis to cure her and then encourages her to study it herself. Meanwhile, Jung’s theoretical and clinical work has come to the notice of Sigmund Freud in Vienna; Jung travels to Vienna to meet with the father of psychoanalysis and Freud soon anoints Jung as his intellectual heir. Soon after, Jung in the course of helping Spielrein with her studies, begins an affair with her against his own better judgement.

The film features several interesting discussions and debates on the emerging theories of psychoanalysis, between Jung and Freud, Jung and Spielrein, Jung and Otto Gross (an ‘anarchist psychologist’ and champion of sexual liberation) and between Spielrein and Freud.

Freud and Jung eventually break their collaboration as neither man can come to terms with the other’s dogma and attachment to their respective pet theories. Freud insists that all forms of neuroses have a sexual basis and that patients fundamentally cannot be cured, but can only be made aware of their malady. Jung on the other hand, believes that patients can be cured and is willing to explore telepathy and Eastern mysticism, topics abhorred by Freud. Spielrein herself comes across as a woman of extremely sharp intellect who was forming her own radical theories on psychoanalysis. She however gets caught up in the politics between the two men and one gets the impression that her theories were probably suppressed by the weight of Jung’s and Freud’s intellects and personalities.

I loved the scenes between Jung and Freud, as much for the insight into the foundations of modern psychoanalysis, as for the chance to see these two great actors occupy the same screen space. Jung particularly, is a tortured soul, struggling to free himself of his sexual obsession with Spielrein and the intellectual stranglehold of Freud. At one point, he says of himself, “Only the wounded physician can hope to heal.” Freud appears to agree as he says, “Experiences like this, however painful, unnecessary and inevitable, without them, how can we know life?”.

Otto Gross, played by French actor Vincent Cassel also gets some choice bits of dialogue. When Jung complains to him about Freud’s insistence on linking all behavior to sexuality, Gross says, “I think Freud’s obsession with sex probably has a great deal to do with the fact that he never gets any.” On another occasion when he is asked if he is not a believer in monogamy, he responds with great feeling, “For a neurotic like myself, I can’t possibly imagine a more stressful concept.”

Overall, A Dangerous Game is a finely acted film which tells the story of the dawn of psychoanalysis with documentary-like detachment and European precision. Not to be watched with children in the room, though.

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