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A Dangerous Method - the love triangle

A Dangerous Method

Screened at Cornerhouse, Manchester

Reviewed by Anne Ryan February 2012


There is a long tradition of films treating psychoanalysis, from its initial introduction to the Hollywood community with the pre-war influx of intellectuals fleeing Nazi persecution – as shown in Hitchcock’s ‘Spellbound’ to the more comic ‘Analyze This’ – films which increasingly show that the analyst may be more screwed up than the patient.


Cronenberg’s adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play shows how dangerous the talking cure could be and the relationship between Freud and Jung whose split created a fundamental division in psychoanalysis. Based on true, but almost unbelievable, events, this is ostensibly the story of Sabina Spielrein who begins as a patient and then through analysis becomes one of the first female analysts, but the core of the film is the relationship between the older Freud and Jung, whom he views as his successor.


Initially Jung idolises Freud but soon the two men are diverging. Jung establishes that Spielrein’s hysteria stems from childhood abuse, leading her to consider herself ‘vile and filthy and corrupt’ and therefore deserving of punishment. This concentration on the sexual confirms Freud’s theories that sexual desire and its repression were at the root of hysteria.


Faced with the nervous wreck that Spielrein has become Jung is persuaded to fulfill her desire for punishment, thereby cheating on his wife and stepping over the boundary between analyst and patient. Analysts are warned of the danger of transference, where the patient seeks a solution for their problems by concentrating their desires on the analyst, in this case the analyst is easily persuaded to fulfill his patient’s desires.


Freud is played by Viggo Mortensen, who previously worked with Cronenberg to great effect in ‘A History of Violence’ and ‘Eastern Promises’. He plays the founder of psychoanalysis as the elder statesman a celibate who sees sex everywhere and wishes to bestow the mantle of leadership on his young disciple Jung. Michael Fassbender is the young star exploring the new science whilst finding himself in conflict with his mentor. It is fascinating to see these pioneers explore the boundaries of the new science.


Keira Knightley and Michael FassbenderIt is Keira Knightley who has the most dramatic part as the brilliant hysteric Spielrein. Some critics have judged her jaw-jutting portrayal as over-the-top, but Spielrein's case was well-documented and Knightley's version is said to be absolutely accurate. Personally I found Knightley's performance deeply moving – her agonies are the screams of women throughout history, economically, socially, politically and sexually repressed.


The acting honours are shared with Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross, an unrepententent sensualist who encourages Jung to follow his instincts and embark on a sado-masochistic affair. This may have been in accordance with Jung’s central theory of individuation, whereby the conscious and unconscious are integrated for a person to become whole.


The film shows us the tensions in the relationship between the two men. Jung the younger man, gentile, prosperous and complacent with a gleam of ambition in his eye. Freud the older man maintaining a large family in a small apartment, fatally compromised in society by his Jewishness and his comparative poverty. He plays the role of mentor and guru to Jung  while trying to manipulate the younger man. The motives of both protagonists are often open to question – why does Jung make Sabina his assistant if not to facilitate his affair and why does Freud refer the sensual Otto Gross to Jung if not to force him to acknowledge the primacy of sexual desire. One is often tempted to ask these physicians to heal themselves.


The film dramatises Jung’s growing disenchantment with Freud, his rejection of the master’s theories and his growing embrace of spirituality. Freud criticises him as unscientific and indulging in pseudo-religious theories. For Freud there was only the individual personal consciousness as a repository of repressed emotions and desires, for Jung there also existed a collective unconscious, where could be found the mythical archetypes that underlie civilisation.


Ironically although Freud argued that his method was scientific, he refused to endorse his own clinical findings. He dismissed his patients numerous reports of parental sexual abuse as wish fulfillment fantasies It is only in the modern era that we realise that many of his women patients who claimed to have been sexually abused were in fact speaking the truth – that the level of abuse was and is indeed shockingly high. One of Jung’s criticisms of Freud was his concentration on the sexual motivation, in the film and in his life we see Jung act out his desires rejecting repression and giving full rein to the Id and we also see the chaos and pain which results.


Jung and Freud portrayed discussing theoriesFreud has been subject to great criticism, particularly from feminists and a cursory reading of the biographies of the founders of analysis would encourage such ad hominem criticism. The lack of a social and political dimension to their theories is a serious lacuna. It is perhaps unsurprising that upper middle class women in 19th century Vienna envied men, not their penises, but their freedom. And on a personal level the behaviour of Jung would have him immediately struck off.


A Dangerous Method is an exceptionally articulate love triangle, but by showing the birth of a theory of the mind that has come to dominant Western culture the film suggests the arguments that would shape our century – repression, release, neurosis and the role of sex. Cronenberg has produced an intelligent and often amusing film – one is often reduced to amazement at the giants of pscyhoanalysis who show no awareness of their own benaviour and motivations and show a horrific habit of forcing their patients into their pre-existing theories. He has also introduced many film-goers to the pivotal figure of Sabrina Spielrein, a woman who has been written out of a history, which is dominated by the egos of Freud and Jung.


However much one may criticise these men and as a feminist I could write a book (!), Freud and Jung both recognised the desires that could lurk beneath civilisation and would come to scar the 20th century. It is interesting to see that even with this knowledge they were powerless to achieve happiness themselves.

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