A Dangerous Method (2011)

Dir. David Cronenberg. Starring Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen

In love and psychoanalysis, where one rests relative to one’s partner is of vital importance. Throughout the film, Jung (Fassbender) and Spielrein (Knightley) switch places relative to one another befitting just those concepts. In the beginning, while Jung is still her doctor and not her lover, he places her in front of him. During therapy sessions, Spielrein sits in front of him so that she does not have to manage the stress of looking him in the face while baring her secrets. When they become lovers – and Jung begins to strike her during foreplay, which Spielrein told him in therapy was a turn-on – he remains behind her often as not. As Jung becomes more vulnerable, either because of his infatuation with her or because of his failing relationship with Freud (Mortensen), we see her behind him more and more frequently. And at the end, of course, at the outset of Jung’s breakdown and the burgeoning of Spielrein’s career, the two of them sit side by side on the bench, though facing different directions. Spielrein points towards solid ground, looking directly at her former doctor and lover; Jung faces and looks out on the water, only seldom able to look Spielrein in the face.

A Dangerous Method bears the signs of having been a play once, or at least having been conceived of originally as a play: the crisp, 72-point blocking as seen above, the way establishing shots seem to bounce off of the camera (think everything that takes place on that ocean liner), the dialogue that’s always a little too meaningful for normal talking. It is based in large part on Christopher Hampton’s The Talking Cure, which is a much better title than the title of the non-fiction book about Freud and Jung’s rivalry and fallout involving Spielrein, A Most Dangerous Method, by John Kerr. Both are listed as sources for the film, but like A Doll’s House and Atonement, this is Hampton’s screenplay.

The idea of a “talking cure,” where people voluntarily offer up what’s inside them, seems very natural in the present day, complete with its almost reverent treatment of spoken language. The fact that the film more or less begins with Jung administering Freud’s talking cure to Spielrein tints the whole drama with its shade. Every word and action is suddenly subject to the kind of scrutiny that usually is left to English majors and lawyers. When we begin by privileging the small actions – jumping into a pond, panicking when a coat is beaten with a walking stick, the “talking cure” – then we look for meaning everywhere, and gosh is it easy to find.

I struggle to think of another film which is technically about psychoanalysis the way that this one is. Psychoanalysis, whether Freudian, Jungian, or (especially) Lacanian, is one of the most important tools for reading film academically. Movies, for their part, seem to have Freud (or Jung or Lacan) on the brain as well; Psycho is the winner of this particular competition, down to the allusive title. It may be a case of seeing what we’re prepared to see, but psychoanalysis and film go together like peanut butter and jelly. It’s the reason why Freud and Jung and Lacan are more important to academics in the humanities than they are to practicing psychologists: their work simply fits with the arts. More than one person, I’m sure, has pointed out that psychoanalysis and close reading (whatever you may think of either practice) share the weird belief that text – whether elocuted by a patient or inscribed on paper or depicted on film – has meaning “underneath” its obvious imports, a presumed intaglio. For that reason, it seems to me that movies and plays and even novels about psychoanalysis and its founding fathers should be everywhere. One finds plenty about psychologists, from Equus to In Treatment in which much the same sort of weighting occurs, but about psychoanalysis not so much. That’s too bad.

For A Dangerous Method, the heavy dose of psychoanalysis makes the movie. The movie has been meticulously researched, and in terms of jargon (of greater importance than usual in a film that relies heavily on words), that meticulousness is necessary. I couldn’t help thinking back on some dialogue from Reds, in which Edward Herrmann shouts (as Max Eastman) “Read Engels! Read Marx!” at somebody who doesn’t understand some point of principle. A Dangerous Method’s early ’10s screenplay is a sabermetric leap ahead, far more caring for what Jung and Freud and Spielrein dream of than Reds‘ ’80s screenplay, which fell in love with Jack Reed and not his cause. A Dangerous Method recreates the scene in which Jung and Freud argue about the significance of Akhenaten before Freud collapses; A Dangerous Method is not scared to use the terminology of psychoanalysis as dialogue as opposed to making it a bland authenticity marker; in doing so, of course, the psychoanalytic terminology is a far greater marker of authenticity than creating psychobabble.

The Akhenaten scene is a good example of how the film is willing to, like one does through the talking cure, mine meaning in seemingly innocuous or opaque language. At this point in the film, Jung and Freud have already begun to diverge from one another both personally and academically. Freud reads Akhenaten’s actions regarding his father reductively, as is Freudian, while Jung argues that there was more nuance to the way that Akhenaten erased his father’s legacy. Freud is not shy about pointing out that in the metaphor the two of them are creating, he is Amenhotep III, the erased one, and Jung sees himself as Akhenaten.

The seeds of their discord were sown long before, though; almost from the first, it’s apparent that Freud and Jung will not manage to get along. Jung, like Brad Pitt in Ocean’s Eleven, is constantly eating. At a table of what must be a dozen people, Jung serves himself first and serves himself a great big heap of food; it doesn’t seem to be rudeness so much as cluelessness. The way that Mortensen gives the evil eye not to Fassbender but Fassbender’s plate in that scene is priceless, just one in a series of several secretly hilarious things that Mortensen brings to the table in the film. And as they become more involved with one another, the fact that Freud would never fill his plate like that, even if he were alone, comes to symbolize the disconnect between them. While Jung eats, Freud smokes. While Jung hypothesizes – and on topics which, to the modern mind, are no more or less weird than Freud’s findings – Freud fancies himself scientific. While Jung thinks of Freud as a collaborator, Freud thinks of Jung as a successor. While Jung can give in to his desires and have sex with a patient, Freud is too much the distant professional to entertain, much less condone, such an action. Over the course of their thirteen hour conversation (which is as Lin-Manuel Miranda says: “That’s true.”), no segment of it seems to end totally peacefully. Both men are too serious, too certain that they’re on the cusp of some Truth or Breakthrough or some other Capitalized Concept to be totally at ease with one another. There is no way for them not to be rivals; for one thing, Freud’s perfect estate would have many executors but no heirs.

Freud (like Miranda’s Hamilton) is still relatively young – he has more than thirty years to go until he will die in London, having done what Spielrein failed to do and escaped the Nazis – and yet he is obsessed with how people will view him in the future. He judges the young Jung’s success against his own at comparable ages (advantage Jung); he worries, with simultaneous prudence and paranoia, that the Jewishness of the Vienna psychoanalysts will work against them. Jung doesn’t see why that should matter; Freud crisply characterizes Jung’s retort as “exquisitely Protestant.” Every time that Freud is wrong on some aspect of Jung’s personal life or practice, he visibly takes it as an insult. He presumes that Jung will have financial stress because of his increasing number of children, but Jung’s wife is fabulously wealthy and they will never struggle for money. He presumes that Sabina will exhibit the same symptoms as other anally fixated patients; when Jung assures him that it’s not so, Freud can only make a small joke about Russians. All this grates on Jung quickly, and is the fire that fuels their split later in the film; Freud has built himself up as, if not infallible, then the next thing to it. The film posits that if Freud could have seen how he was viewed in 2011 – as the brilliant but largely wrong founder of an entire medical discipline, a household name whose ideas are scattered across many fields, a fin-de-siecle Aristotle – he would be livid. Freud compares himself to Columbus in the film, and Columbus is singular. Jung’s comparison of Freud to Galileo must be a smack in the face in Freud’s mind; how many other great names are there in the development of modern physics and astronomy?

Later on, Freud sends Otto Gross to Jung in the hopes that Jung can help a man who “apart from yourself, the only man capable of making a major contribution to our field.” The subtext is fairly clear; Freud can do no more with this particular executor of his estate, or perhaps chooses to test Jung with this most difficult character; in either event, it’s a test for Freud to grade. Gross (played by Vincent Cassel, borrowed to be a perfect slouching Austrian degenerate coded as French for American audiences), although we cannot see it in the moment, is Spielrein’s foil in this film. Gross, formerly a Freudian, comes to Jung and changes his opinion on Freud. Spielrein, formerly a Jungian, comes to Freud and ruins his opinion on Jung.  Gross, who would have fit in nicely with Free Love types later on, indulges himself at any opportunity; not to do so is, in his mind, the way into the bin. Spielrein would argue that from her own experience that the inability to repress her desire caused her madness. Gross’ words have a profound effect on Jung, who takes Spielrein as a mistress almost immediately after Gross escapes the hospital. Spielrein’s words have a profound effect on Freud; although it takes some real effort, she convinces Jung to tell Freud the truth, and from then on Freud feels that he really can no longer trust the man he thought would take the mantle from him.

A Dangerous Method is, for me, a deeply underrated movie, one that makes very few missteps, although Keira Knightley’s wild and crazy Russian accent is definitely one of them, bless whoever thought of that. For her part, Knightley’s performance is largely unlike most of her oeuvre; in virtually every other movie I’ve  seen her in, from Pirates of the Caribbean to Atonement to Never Let Me Go to Pride and Prejudice to Anna Karenina to Bend It Like Beckham and several more besides, it matters a great deal that she’s pretty. She’s pretty in this movie too, though it’s not part of her character. Emma Jung (Sarah Gadon) is luminous and put together and attractive in a way that Sabina Spielrein simply is not. Gadon whispers throughout the film; only Cassel is quieter, and that’s because he’s mumbling. Gadon’s Emma understands that her husband is cheating on her; her not quite offhand remark about her husband wishing he were a polygamist is responded to on his part with a weird seriousness. “I wouldn’t want to know anything about it,” she says before giving him a boat with red sails. The symbolism, for a man who knows Freud inside and out, has to be unmistakable, and yet he seems not to recognize it. Water and birth are inextricable in Freudian psychoanalysis, and the red sails mirror the hymeneal blood that he’s elicited from his mistress as well as the blood that surrounds a newborn. “I wouldn’t want to know anything about your affair,” she says to him. “Here’s a symbol of your rebirth as a person, thanks to your interactions with Gross and Spielrein, that you can literally ride around in.” I love that scene. It’s the funniest part of the movie, even more so than Mortensen’s Freudian one-liners and side-eye.

For me, accent aside (and I really don’t want to believe that was her idea, because why would it be?), Knightley’s performance is just right. Is she crazy? Sure, by the standards of the day, but she’s not escaped from the set of Amadeus either. Knightley moves between a woman with a mental illness that she can’t control and a woman with a mental illness – by the standards of the day – that she can control, and neither one gives the viewer any pause. She is simply convincing, just as Mortensen and Fassbender are convincing. And for that pair, who coexist together on the level just below whatever heaven Daniel Day-Lewis ascended to, convincing is plenty. Fassbender is not tortured enough in this film to reach his own state of perfection, and his body, one of his great assets as an actor, is not as important here as it is in many of his other star roles; A Dangerous Method is not Hunger or Shame. (The Steve McQueen-Michael Fassbender axis is, for my money, the single most potent director-actor pairing active in Hollywood.) But his Jung is convincing in everything he does, from his great appetite to his vaguely patronizing, dismissive treatment of his wife’s concerns with an offhanded “Don’t be absurd.” He is likewise convincing when the veins in his neck pop out around Knightley, either when he’s beating her or when he’s crying inconsolably into her dress. Mortensen rather steals the show, and it would be hard for him not to. Mortensen’s Freud, as befits someone who is a real-life Ozymandias, carves his face in stone. His expression changes subtly, and he allows his words – still mostly monotone – to do the work that his expression doesn’t. More than Knightley or Fassbender, Mortensen in this film seems to get that this film is about the talking cure; he measures every bit of his dialogue and voiceovers, understanding that the words his character brings to bear are, more than anything else he can offer, immensely powerful.

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