The film, A Dangerous Method , is an ambitious effort to portray the complex and tumultuous evolution of the relationships and theories among the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, his protégé Carl Jung, and the patient-turned-psychoanalyst, Sabina Spielrein. The movie is beautiful and engaging but not very satisfying. But then, it is based on the untidiness of real life, and titans of western thought though they were, Freud and Jung were still human beings. The film is well worth seeing, but be prepared to come out thinking ‘huh, interesting’ rather than ‘wow!’ Dangerous Method succeeds as a largely nonjudgmental chronicle of impassioned people and big ideas that unfold over time. In taking this long and very human view, however, it sacrifices emotional force, and leaves mostly ambivalence. It’s greatest moment is the glimpse of Carl Jung through the eyes of Spielrein as someone wanting to look beyond the dark side of the psyche into human potential.
Few figures in history have had such a broad impact on western culture. Psychoanalysis has not only revolutionized how we think about the mind, behavior, and personality, it added a slew of words to daily discourse, from ego and complex to introvert. The trailer , as expected, doesn’t do the depth of the film or history justice, because it focuses on the personal desires and professional fallout surrounding the sexual dynamics of the Jung and Spielrein. It leaves an image of Spielrein as an unhinged patient and gives no indication of her theoretical contributions to the thinking of not just Freud and Jung, but the field of psychoanalysis. (If you’re interested in Spielrein herself, see Director Elisabeth Marton’s documentary ‘Ich Hiess Sabina Spielrein,’ based on correspondence Spielrein left behind when she returned to Russia in 1923. The papers were discovered in a basement in Geneva in 1977.)
A Dangerous Method , directed by David Cronenberg, stars Michael Fassbender as Jung, Keira Knightley as Spielrein, and Viggo Mortensen as Freud. It begins with the admittance of the intelligent and well-educated 19-year-old Spielrein to the Burghölzli psychiatric hospital in Zurich, where she is assigned to the young doctor Carl Jung. Jung diagnoses Spielrein’s uncontrollable and defiant behaviors as hysteria and begins ‘talk therapy,’ a new form of treatment advocated by the well-known Austrian neurologist, Sigmund Freud.
When we first meet Spielrein, it’s pretty clear that Jung has his work cut out for him. Knightley’s portrayal makes Spielrein seem seriously ill, transforming palpable psychic pain into almost physical deformity with her chin jutting, twitching and writhing. Psychoanalysis is serious science so it makes sense when Jung describes the treatment to Spielrein, emphasizing the importance of the therapist remaining out of the line of sight. But then there begins some disconnects. That’s the last we see of an actual therapy session (unless you count the scenes where Jung is talking to Otto Gross, but it’s not clear who’s shrinking whom). In fact, Spielrein’s cure is so rapid, and Knightley’s depiction is sufficiently intense and idiosyncratic throughout the film, that where she is therapeutically is hard to follow. Is that a therapy session in the garden? Should the patient Spielrein be assisting Jung in word-association research with a human subject, let alone Jung’s wife? If Spielrein is in treatment for hysteria, how did she get enrolled in medical school? There is historical evidence that her cure was rapid, particularly by psychoanalytic standards, but until the point where Spielrein remarks that Jung has cured her, it’s not clear where they are in the therapeutic process. Without that context, we may be willing to suspend disbelief, but in what?
The relationship between Freud and Jung is also confusing. Unless you’re a Freudian or Jungian scholar, you’re left mapping bits and pieces of what’s offered in the movie to whatever you already knew about Freud and Jung, trying to make sense of it. Mortensen plays Freud with restraint, but does infuse a sense of dry humor that gives him some humanity in spite of his obvious hubris. (Mortensen is also too vital to look old enough to step aside for ‘young men’ like Jung, but I was willing to go with that one.)
Freud is inflexible yet vulnerable in his need to maintain his theoretical dominance. Jung comes off less well on the ‘likeability’ scale. He seems surprisingly callous to social dynamics and a bit self-absorbed for someone interested in psychiatry; he takes too much food at Freud’s dinner table and is unbothered by the discomfort caused by the disparity of income between himself (thanks to his wealthy wife) and Freud, not to mention the breach of professional ethics in his relationship with Spielrein or his conduct towards his wife. The personal angst and turmoil he experiences during and after his relationship with Spielrein may represent the exploration of the drives that psychoanalysis embodies, but they don’t engender much sympathy when we find out, almost in passing (spoiler alert), that now that Spielrein has left, Jung has another mistress.
The broader historical context for psychoanalysis, however, is missing. Freud worries about people attacking psychoanalysis and Jung suggests that people would be more accepting if the theories weren’t all focused on sex, but the audience has no way of knowing the amount of professional, scientific, or public acceptance for psychoanalysis except as implied by the fact that Jung and Freud aren’t skulking about in secret.
The theoretical exchanges show fissure but don’t do either Freud of Jung any justice. Jung’s interest in spirituality and the broader cosmos doesn’t begin to do his work justice. Predicting a cracking sound in the bookcase is a far cry from developing theories of the collective unconscious and archetypes. Dangerous Methods does, however, underscore Spielrein’s role as a catalyst both emotionally and intellectually, heightened by the competition between Jung and Freud. In fact, Spielrein’s discussions of theory with Freud and Jung are the most interesting of the film, both in content and in the men’s subtle dismissal of her insights. If you’re interested in psychoanalytic theory, you will want more depth and clarity; if not, you will have had more than enough.
The highpoint of the movie for me is when Spielrein defends Jung to Freud by arguing that Jung want to show people what they have the potential to become, not just reveal their illnesses and neuroses. Freud summarily rejects this as appropriate. It shows, better than any other place in the film, the schism in their perspectives toward the role of psychology as an agent of change and is also a continued theme today in the field of psychology. In spite of that, it’s hard to believe that the lackluster Jung we see by the end of the film made such pivotal contributions to western thought and psychology, not to mention spawning personality theories that have become a bedrock in management development, leadership training, and career counseling.
All that being said, it’s a movie worth seeing. It reminds us even icons of history are human beings and that life is messy.