Screening Log #40: A Dangerous Method (2011)

Written by Christopher Hampton, based on his play “The Talking Cure” and John Kerr’s book A Dangerous Method
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Michael Fassbender, Kiera Knightley. Viggo Mortensen, and Vincent Cassel




There is an intimate relationship that develops between a patient and their doctor in any medical discipline. A patient shares the secrets of their body, in particular its frailties, with precious few people; in the instance of psychological or psychiatric relationships, this relationship expands to involve mental disorders and illnesses, also. In all cases, a doctor allows the patient a more familiar knowledge of their internal life, be it physical or mental. I imagine, in some ways, that a relationship similar to this can develop between film makers and their audience. Through the course of a career, themes emerge, films are created that articulate an insight into the corpus of society and the mind of an individual. In the case of David Cronenberg, this reciprocity between mind and body, between film and viewer, seems particularly apt.

I’ve cited the mind/body, psycho/physiological, connections inherent in David Cronenberg’s oeuvre previously. However, where Dead Ringers presents this thematic concern directly through its character relationship, the subject of psychological inquiry is the explicit focus of his A Dangerous Method. The film follows the development of Carl Jung, Michael Fassbender, from his early days as a follower of Freud’s psychoanalytic therapy, through the blooming of his relationship with Freud himself, Viggo Mortensen, and their subsequent falling out. This relationship provides the backdrop for Jung’s relationship with patient-turned-lover Sabina Spielrein, Kiera Knightley, and how this reinforces and alters his professional and ideological development. Spielrein is admitted to the hospital where Jung practices, referred to Jung by Freud, a wealthy and educated Russian Jew with various neuroses that combine to make her seem mad. Due to her intelligence and openness Jung decides that she will be the subject of his first foray into Freud’s proposed “talking cure”.

Through the course of Jung’s treatment of Spielrein the two develop a romantic, perhaps, more accurately, sexual, relationship. This complicates Jung’s personal life, Jung being married to a wealthy woman and in violation of many principles central to ethical treatment of patients. As this relationship violates tenets of Jung’s professional life, he is simultaneously nurturing a closer relationship with the father of psychoanalysis himself, Sigmund Freud. Freud refers Jung another patient, a fellow doctor and therapist, Otto Gross, who professes to be completely unrestrained, and, as such, liberated. Jung treats Gross for a short while before Gross escapes the hospital, having impacted Jung’s thinking to a serious degree.

The film positions these three doctor figures in an interestingly appropriate symbolic arrangement; each doctor, in their respective role, functions as representative of one aspect of Freud’s own psychic apparatus: the Id, the Ego, and the Super-Ego. Gross functions very much as the Id, the unrestrained instinctual drive, Jung as the Ego, the realistic mediator between the Id and the ideological/critical Super-Ego, and Freud, naturally, as the Super-Ego itself. As such, the film is able to offer a working model of how these three elements of the psyche function together in Freudian terms, insofar as one considers their interactions in the film. Certainly, to some degree, each of the characters will be possessed of all three elements, but their behaviour, especially in relation to the other doctors, will, however, largely be ruled by one element.

Beyond his character’s interactions symbolically modeling the process on screen, Cronenberg composes his shots to emphasize the psychoanalytic process. In many of the scenes depicting sessions of psychoanalysis, as well as other discussions of dreams, Cronenberg positions one character behind the other, both facing the viewer. This strategy allows Cronenberg visually assert the manner in which information is being mediated by one character; by utilizing a deeper focus Cronenberg keeps both subjects clear in the frame, refusing to subjugate one aspect of the psychoanalytic process to the other, privileging neither patient nor doctor.

The falling out between Jung and Freud is, by now, no secret, and his affair with Spielrein could realistically only have a single outcome. The movie jumps through time, excising years between scenes, to show the high points and subsequent unraveling of this pair of Jung’s relationships. Lying subtly under the difference between Jung’s growing investment in mysticism and Freud’s staunch insistence that, to be taken seriously as a science, psychoanalysis must focus exclusively on the sexual aspects of the conscious and subconscious mind, and Jung’s desire to allow patients the ability to better themselves which contradicts Freud’s assertion that showing the patient the root of their illness was all that could be done, is a tension between the upwardly mobile, wealthy, Aryan, Jung and the Jewish Freud. Implicit in this tension is a critical point that to Jung social mobility and betterment were immanent possibilities, while Freud’s social standing was permanently inflected and seemingly, at the time, limited by his being a Jew.

Indeed, despite being Jewish himself, this topic has rarely, if at all, surfaced in any of Cronenberg’s previous cinematic output. Perhaps religion is, in many cases, as intrinsically related to one’s psychological makeup as one’s body is. Perhaps the relationship between Cronenberg and his audience has simply reached a point of revelation, or clarity, from which this subject may be more open for discussion. While immediately one of Cronenberg’s least Cronenbergesque films, A Dangerous Method may well be a film which offers a distinct view into his psyche.


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