Lost in the Movies: A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg is the consummate director of physicality, and the worlds he explores are resolutely exterior (often gruesomely so). Therefore it's rather ironic, and illuminating, to see him tackle psychology not only as approach, but as subject matter of A Dangerous Method. Making the pyschological physical, Cronenberg highlights the instances in which mental and emotional torments render themselves in jerks and spasms - or perhaps more subtly, in grimaces, kisses, or fleeting glances. We meet Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), the first analytical subject and future lover of pioneering psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), in the throes of a hysterical state. There she is jutting out her chin, tangling her arms in a kind of serpentine dance of nervous sensuality, almost visibly choking her words out in a charmingly choppy Russian accent (for some reason - actually for a very particular reason, I suspect - the German-speaking Freud and Jung talk in crisp British tones).

Both Sabina's behavior and voice define her as foreign, strange; in his appreciation of the film Glenn Kenny called her the film's "id" in contrast, presumably, to Jung's ambivalent ego and the hyper-rational superego of Dr. Freud (Viggo Mortensen), who forms a kind of psychoanalytic triangle with Jung and Spielrien (Jung's case study of Spielrien brings the two great men together, while the revelation of Jung's affair with Spielrein pulls the two men apart). Spielrien both catalyzes and destabilizes, much like her own theory of sex and death as described in the movie. Her form of subversion, however, is something Cronenberg is eminently comfortable with. Contrast this with Jung, whose mysticism is kept offscreen, suggested in dialogue but never seen. Jung himself would have appreciated the irony; his first breakthroughs as a practitioner came when he made the empathetic leap into the psychotic world of patients, not merely reading outer symptoms but diving into their inner lives. This being the case, Cronenberg's rich yet reticent approach to the material is quite revealing - of himself as much as of Freud or Jung.

Fascinating in this regard is Glenn Kenny's interview with the director, whose execution of the film hewed closely to Christopher Hampton's screenplay (drawing on his own play The Talking Cure, which was based in turn on A Most Dangerous Method, a rigorously researched work of nonfiction by John Kerr). In this Q & A, the director displays an ambivalence bordering on animosity toward Jung. To wit:
"And Jung's whole idea of the collective unconscious is completely a religious, platonic structure. It has no basis in psychology, as far as I'm concerned. I have a friend who says Jung would have been better off talking about the “collective conscious.” It would have made more sense. But in any case, I think that Jung became what he first derided in his youth. His father was a pastor. And he had six uncles who were also pastors. And he derided his father at first for his “weakness.” But I think he eventually became that. He wanted to become a religious leader and lead his flock to spiritual self-realization. And that was exactly what Freud thought he would do."
He also discusses Jung's nascent anti-Semitism and alleged pro-Nazism (as I'm just now making extended forays into Jungian theory and biography, aside from his memoirs which have long been among my favorite works of literature, I'm not prepared to defend or confirm Cronenberg's views on that subject). Importantly, Cronenberg ties these in to the religiosity and defensiveness of Jung's ideas, suggesting a kind of general "weakness" in which his rational, scientific side gives way to an obscuring mysticism.

Oddly enough, I didn't get this impression watching the film itself, in which Jung - particularly given Fassbender's thoughtful, sensitive portrayal - came off more sympathetically than Freud, all charismatic authority in Mortensen's hand, but charismatic authority which bluffs and blusters at times. Reading Cronenberg's comments, however, and reflecting back on the movie I can see the traces of his skeptical sensibility in what's onscreen. We're left with the firm impression that Jung's increasingly mystical approach to psychoanalysis is in large part a hypocritical, self-protective defense mechanism borne out of his own bourgeois resistance to polygamy, specifically his inability to reconcile his social duty to his wife with need for a passionate mistress. And so his spirituality is painted as a conservative, even reactionary development (which is much how Freud saw it) rather than a liberating one.

Cronenberg creates this impression not just through suggestive (and occasionally explicit) dialogue but through visual juxtaposition, cutting from Jung's increasingly metaphysical claims to all-too-physical altercations with Spielrein, in which he slaps and spanks her (at her own sadomasochistic request) in front of mirrors. (The cinematography also makes excellent use of what appears to be a split diopter lens, keeping foreground in focus on one side of the screen, background on the other adding an appealingly surreal quality to its tastefully period design.) And yet at the same time, despite Cronenberg's rather partisan declarations in the interview, the film is ambivalent about both figures; if Jungian psychology develops out of a desire to "cover up" Jung's own ambivalent sexuality, than many of Freud's theories and actions appear to be rationalizations of his own desire for power and control borne not only out of ethnic insecurity but class differences: exemplified during Freud's 13-hour chat with Jung, his visit to Jung's spacious country estate, and later their separation into steerage and first-class on the voyage to America.

What's more, that very class difference itself has a sexual tinge; it is not Jung who is wealthy but rather Jung's wife. Since it's hinted that Freud doesn't get much action in his marital bed (or elsewhere) we can surmise that Freud is not only jealous of Jung's economic advantage but his sexual advantage as well, with the wife - and later Spielrein (also from a wealthy family) as the fulcrum. The break over Spielrein seems to confirm this. Ultimately if there is a figure who just might represent a way forward Cronenberg can sympathize with, it's Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell), the half-mad sex addict who is both Jung's patient and a brilliant Freudian analyst in his own right. His ethos is simple - "freedom is freedom" - if no less destructive than Freud's or Jung's stubborn sensibilities. Even if Gross' is the least hypocritical path of the three, it's no easier for it; the film doesn't have easy answers. A Dangerous Method is a work of many interlocking layers, as tangled and convoluted (yet following an inner logic) as Spielrein's frantic hands in that first interview - or, indeed, as psychoanalysis itself, that "most dangerous method" of the title.

I read Kerr's book before seeing the movie, which throws the film's thematic and stylistic decisions into sharper relief. The thrust of Kerr's work is less to discredit either Freudian or Jungian theory per se than to show the human terms out of which each arose. The abstract theories may very well - indeed in some cases, certainly did - have their roots in wounded pride and broken hearts. However, Kerr also makes clear that the Freudian and Jungian systems (which he looks upon with some skepticism as being unscientific) are nonetheless not reducible to mere rationalizations for romantic entanglements. The film is less effective on this front - characteristically of its time, Cronenberg's and Hampton's approach seems more interested in personal drama than big ideas. Ultimately then, A Dangerous Method appears a bit dismissive particularly of Jung - the richness of his allegorical universe is never conveyed; the suggestiveness (however unscientific) of his "collective unconsciousness" is dismissed by Cronenberg in that interview and never really suggested onscreen.

And yet it's hard to fault the film for this - part of its fascination is that despite its ambiguity and equanimity, it does have an angle of an attack. What's more, A Dangerous Method is showing these figures near the start of their careers (Jung particularly although even Freud at fifty was just starting to formulate psychoanalysis as a "movement" as well as a field of study). As such, it is just a beginning. We leave off just before World War I, as Jung sits alongside a lake in a contemplative, melancholy mood. His psychic premonitions (already foreshadowed themselves, in a scene in Freud's study) give him a sense of the apocalypse to come, a cataclysm both world-historical (the war) and personal (a years-long nervous breakdown out of which will arise his own distinctly mythological brand of psychoanalysis). Here is the threshhold at which physicality and exteriority must be tossed aside - at which the animus must give way to the anima (a concept inspired by Spielrein herself, as Kerr's book strongly suggests). Naturally, Cronenberg gets off the train here. But the train keeps going, and I'd like to see a film that picks up where this ends, if that's even possible. A film in which those floodwaters rumbling up in the Alps come pouring down, sweeping Jung, the world, and us into the unexplainable albeit perhaps also unrepresentable.


Peter Lenihan said...

Cronenberg's point of view is interesting, although it seems to be somewhat contradicted by the actual film--granted I haven't seen the movie in the better part of year, but doesn't it end with Jung having a prophetic and mystical (and true) dream, foreseeing the impending war? Anyway, it was hard for me to get past Knightley here (who I've liked fine elsewhere) or a script that was a bit too on-the-nose for me. Cosmopolis is something else though, when you get the chance to see it. Very much of a piece with A Dangerous Method, but far more successful, in my opinion.

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah, as I've noted elsewhere (even in the 3 or so days since writing this, my thoughts have continued to evolve), in some ways the film is a Rorschach test: you can find anything you're looking for in it. That sounds like an insult but actually I find this quality very intriguing. Take that ending for instance: on the one hand, it's hard not to feel sympathy for Jung, lost and confused, on the brink of madness (contrast with the serene self-assurance - without arrogance - he displays in that first scene). Yet this sympathy is tinged with a bit of condescension; now Spielrein is playing doctor and trying to coax Jung back from the brink, gently and sadly. His muddled mysticism, in the surrounding context of scenes and dialogue seems self-imposed, not a necessary sacrifice but an all-too-human failing in the face of Freud's irrefutable reality. An escape, if paradoxically not a release. And yet AGAIN...who's really right here? As you point out, Jung's vision evokes the coming cataclysm which apparently no one else can foresee. Ultimately then, does the narrative justify his point of view?

More and more, I really like A Dangerous Method (I watched it again over the weekend). It's a small film on a big subject, which runs the risk of seeming somewhat petty and limited, yet it manages to contain all sorts of rich and subtle ambiguities, suggestions, and possibilities beneath its relatively placid surfaces (Knightley's histrionics aside) and seemingly clean, straightforward narrative.

Joel Bocko said...

Incidentally, there are two other films on this exact subject - Spielrein's relationship to Freud and Jung - on Netflix. One is a documentary with recreations the other a European (Italian, maybe?) narrative film. I'm going to watch both over the coming weeks and will report back here.

Joel Bocko said...

And I'm intrigued by Cosmopolis, given all the raves - including from people who didn't like A History of Violence, of which I was not a fan at all. That said, this film (which I can't believe it took me a year to see) had me hooked going in - I've long been fascinated by Jung, and am just now launching an exploration of his work and history.

Anonymous said...

Great essay Joel. I like the layout for the blog as well. I sense some ambivalence from Cronenberg with both psychiatrists. Perhaps the idea that no one escapes themselves, regardless of what success they have in unlocking the human mind or attempting too. These days I think the general brevity of A Dangerous Method hurts it overall. This film needs more than a scant 99 minutes to really be effective. It just feels unfinished or fragmented, but still fascinating overall.... Maurizio Roca

Joel Bocko said...

I feel ambivalent about that. On the one hand, a miniseries format would be spectacular, giving us more time to explore the growing relationship between the men and perhaps even go off into left field a bit with Jung's visions (although Cronenberg's unmystical bent would make him seem unsuited to that, his penchant for weird visualizations might work really well here - the river in blood would be particularly effective). Actually, the best person to bring A Dangerous Mind to the small screen would probably be David Chase with his cogent take on tense yet emotional male relationships and psychoanalytic blowback. Not to mention his great facility with Lynchian dream sequences.

On the other hand, if A Dangerous Method is going to be contained in one movie, I kind of like that it's a seemingly simple, straightforward, clean, neat little film with layers to peel back and a lot of "offscreen."

One of the reasons I've been so fascinated with the film lately is that I realized its correspondence with a story idea I've been developing very very slowly since the spring - which also incorporates elements of Chandler and detective fiction. I'll let you know if/when it comes to fruition - you may be intrigued (and also able to offer constructive feedback as it develops, particularly given your fondness for and knowledge of noir).

I also read the book (but not yet the play, which is closer to the film's structure) before seeing the movie and it's interesting how it compares. The author, John Kerr, is if anything even more hostile toward the presumptions of the psychoanalysts, although he seems a bit harsher of Freud. But he does a better job illustrating the interweaving of ideas & emotions, personal drama & psychological exploration than the film, although again of course that's more something for a miniseries to pursue (and hard to depict visually at any rate).

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