A DANGEROUS METHOD: Starring Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassel. Directed by David Cronenberg. Rated MA 15+ (Sexual themes). 99 minutes.
Reviewed by Fr Peter Malone MSC
A DANGEROUS Method, by John Kerr, was the title of a book about the therapy methods employed by Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, focusing on the processes of psychoanalysis, the client talking and the therapist listening.
The book was used as a basis for a play by Christopher Hampton which he called The Talking Cure.
Christopher Hampton (whose plays and films include Dangerous Liaisons, The Secret Agent, Imagining Argentina and Cheri) has written the screenplay for this film based on his play.
It has been directed by David Cronenberg who, for more than 30 years, has made a wide range of films, from horror science-fiction to psychological dramas such as Spider, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.
The film has been promoted as dramatising the birth of psychoanalysis or the break between Freud and Jung. This is certainly the case, but there is much more.
In fact, the attention is principally on Jung, his ideas, his work and his personal life. While Freud is present, he is seen in conjunction with his friendship for Jung and then their parting of ways.
The screenplay reminds us of the differences between them, Jung from Switzerland, Freud from Austria, Jung wealthy, Freud poorer and with a large family, Jung Protestant, Freud Jewish.
It is important to realise that while the action of A Dangerous Method takes place over a 10-year period to 1914, Freud was not to die until 1939, exiled from Austria to London. Jung did not die until 1961.
Freud still had a great deal to achieve, but Jung’s main life work took place after the action of the film ends.
The other important characters in the film are Jung’s long-suffering and pardoning wife, Emma (Sarah Gadon), as well as Jung’s key patient Sabina Spielrein, whom he treated, with whom he had an affair, who contributed to “freeing” him from his rather strict, even repressed, persona.
Another character is introduced, an eccentric psychological study who advocated a freedom from a morals-bound world, Otto Gross, played by Vincent Cassel.
One thing that should be said, is that the film looks very handsome indeed, recreating the elegant European settings pre-World War I and capitalising on the scenic beauty of Switzerland.
What does the film have to offer on Freud and on Jung?
As played by Michael Fassbender (rather the opposite of his powerful performance as the sex addict in Shame), Jung is a dignified man, proper in dress and manner, fascinated by the human psyche and the “talking cure” for his patients.
He is married and beginning a family, more devoted to his wife than loving her.
At this stage of his career, it is the psychoanalysis and its possibilities that interest him and so draw him to Freud, correspondence and, eventually, a visit to Vienna and a 13-hour conversation with the master.
Freud respects Jung, seeing him as a kind of surrogate son or nephew.
The complication for Jung’s life is his work with the Russian, Sabina Spielrein. She is played with some force by Keira Knightley, especially in the early therapy scenes where her traumas take physical hold of her – strain, jutting chin, rigidity, and she eventually admits to masochistic feelings derived from her father’s beating her and humiliating her as a child.
Nevertheless, she wants to study psychology and become a therapist (which, historically, she did, practising in Russia for almost 30 years before a round-up of Jews and Nazi execution early in World War II).
The further complication for Jung is Sabina’s transference of affections and Jung’s succumbing to her seduction and being transformed by her, worrying about professional ethics, about his wife and her pregnancies, deceiving Freud as to the truth of his relationship.
As played by Viggo Mortensen, Freud is the elder statesman of psychoanalysis, rather sure in his professional activities, his reputation and his ideas.
He has a touch of the pompous, which makes his break with Jung a matter of principle before emotion.
Students of psychology are familiar with Freud’s emphasis on more rigorous scientific methods in his approach to patients, his theories about the sexual origins of human behaviour and sexuality in psychological understanding and healing, his excluding of religion and other “mystical” aspects of the psyche from psychology.
This is dramatised in several discussion sequences in the film and in the final correspondence.
Jung is wary of the pan-sexual approach to personality.
He also trusts in “the mystical” and dreams, which led him to pursue his work on archetypes.
Audiences not familiar with Freud and Jung except from hearsay may find the film rather difficult as they have to listen to conversations and watch therapy sessions.
On the other hand, experts may find themselves arguing with the film’s treatment of particular events or particular issues and psychological niceties.
However, the film is not a text book, nor a treatise, but a dramatisation of a significant period (rather than their whole life’s work) in Freud’s life and formative years in the life and career of Jung.
It is not often that a mentally stimulating film like this comes along, and it is to be welcomed.
(In 1962, John Huston directed Montgomery Clift in Freud – which was sub-titled, A Secret Passion. An amusing – and more than amusing – flight of fancy had Freud treating Sherlock Holmes and Holmes learning something about detection from psychology in Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Per Cent Solution (1976). The relationship between Jung and Sabina Spielrein was dramatised in The Soul Keeper (2002), with Iain Glenn as Jung and Emilia Fox as Sabina.)
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.