“Sometimes you have to do something unforgivable, just to be able to go on living.”
This line, uttered by Michael Fassbender’s Carl Jung near the conclusion of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, is indicative of the film’s gravity and ambition. Focusing primarily on Jung’s semi-fruitful/semi-tortured relationships with Viggo Mortensen’s Sigmund Freud and Keira Knightly’s Sabrina Spielrein, A Dangerous Method is a thematically-complex, well-acted and altogether engaging work. Yet, despite everything it has going for it, the film fails to really do justice to its important subject matter. It also doesn’t fully earn the seriousness conveyed through statements like the one above, failing to elucidate much about the emergence of psychoanalysis or the intellectual development of its central character.
The dramatization of the relationship between Freud and Jung is obviously one of A Dangerous Method’s biggest draws. Yet, the film itself is equally if not more concerned with relationship of Fassbender and Knightly’s characters. Beginning with the commitment of Knightly’s Spielrein to Burghölzli, the University of Zurich’s hospital where Jung works, A Dangerous Method charts the dramatic course of their relationship, which moves from patient/doctor, to lovers, to finally colleagues near the story’s end.
When they first meet in 1904, Spielrein is suffering from hysteria, but through using the “talking cure” Jung is able to assess the source of her maladies. Spielrein reveals in their sessions that she was repeatedly beaten by her father when she was young. The beatings also sexually excited her, feelings she repressed and which later manifested themselves in a chaotic frenzy.
Knightly initially plays her character as a bundle of bulging eyes, twisting limbs and one of the more freakish jaw movements in modern cinema. Her early scenes are BIG scenes, effective if somewhat laughable. It’s the kind of acting where you’re not entirely sure if you’re laughing because the performance is genuinely over the top, or if it is just genuine and you’re being a cretin.
Cronenberg beautifully contrasts her with Fassbender, who gives a powerfully implosive performance. His Jung is clearly a rising star in the field of analytic psychology; yet his home life is vapid, clinical, complete with an unloved wife (Sarah Gadon) and a growing family that Jung doesn’t seem to want. Fassbender’s dynamic with Knightly remains strong throughout A Dangerous Method, even after her character recovers and her and Jung begin to have a more stable, yet no less interesting, series of dialogues.
After these early sequences the film jumps two years ahead, to the initial face-to-face meeting of Jung and Mortensen’s Sigmund Freud. In his third collaboration with Cronenberg, Mortensen makes the most of his supporting role. Elegant, cerebral, with just the right pinch of asshole, the actor’s Freud arrives fully-formed; he’s impeccably realized from his first moments on-screen.
Freud’s interactions with Jung generate much of the film’s dramatic tension, and screenwriter Christopher Hampton captures both Jung’s admiration for his older colleague and his significant misgivings. Jung appears disturbed by Freud’s obsessive fixation on sex and his inability to see psychotherapy as little more than what Breuer and Freud dubbed (in their pioneering Studies in Hysteria) as “chimney sweeping”: a bringer of temporary catharsis that won’t truly cure. Conversely, the film’s script also clearly articulates Freud’s view of Jung as a sort of surrogate son. Initially, he considers him a golden boy protégée, capable of taking psychotherapy to its next stage. Later, these warm feelings begin to dissipate, particularly as Jung begins breaking away from Freud’s influence.
The film’s synopsis lays the reason for this break entirely at the feet of Speilrein, but the actual factors are much more diverse. One catalyst is psychoanalyst Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), a debauched libertine who values personal freedom above all and whose renegade spirit is what pushes Jung to accept Speilrein’s advances. Another is Jung’s penchant for the mystical, which Freud comes to view as dangerous to the psychoanalytic movement. Finally, the discoveries made by Spielrein and Jung (both in and out of the bedroom) also begin to refute Freud’s theories, particularly how they come to believe that the death drive is tied to sexuality: a rejection of Freud’s view that Eros is the opposite of Thanos.
The primary theme of A Dangerous Method questions whether institutions have the capacity for flexibility and accommodation. In this context, that question revolves around Freud as the de facto leader of the psychotherapeutic institution. In his texts like The Future of an Illusion, the thinker unpacks figures of patriarchal dominance. A Dangerous Method, however, shows that Freud himself could be such a figure, rigid in focus and even hostile to those challenging his authority. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky does an excellent job in establishing this theme, framing certain shots in Jung and Freud’s first meeting, for instance, with the older man positioned above Jung or just simply dominating the screen.
The relationship between Knightly’s and Fassbender’s characters also plays an important thematic role. Another theme of A Dangerous Method is Spielrein’s belief about death and sex being intertwined. After she recovers from her illness and enrolls in medical school, she outlines her belief in creation through destruction, generated, no less, by the friction between “opposites.” Even Cronenberg laymen and amateur critics (which this reviewer certainly is) cannot fail to recognize how this touches upon his favorite theme of body horror, at least in regards to sex. This is reflected in Sarah Gordon’s scenes, where she bemoans her engorged (and, to her, repulsive) pregnant body, which of course was created through the friction of opposing parts.
A Dangerous Method insinuates (although not as well as it should) that such friction can be healthy. In regards to psychotherapy (or really any intellectual practice), it can prove enriching through the creation of new ideas and facets. This comes out partially when Speilrein implores Freud to not fully split from Jung and risk imperiling the movement. It also comes through in the film’s footnotes, which reveal how Jung emerged from the tumult of his relationships with Freud and Spielrein and the horror of WWI to become the world’s leading psychologist.
What’s sadly missing here is a strong sense of context. In spinning this historically-based tale, Cronenberg seems to have developed antipathy for historical atmosphere, aside from aesthetic elements like the film’s costume and production design – which are impeccable. This “history is for weenies” attitude is detrimental to A Dangerous Method’s overall intensity, robbing it of dramatic stakes. How Jung comes to specifically deviate from Freud is also not largely explored. Jungian ideas like the collective unconsciousness and archetypes, which could have deepened the film’s dialogue about therapy being a modality for people to reach their full potential, remain undeveloped.
For the most part, A Dangerous Method is a relatively insular production, a quality that is perhaps unsurprising for a movie adapted from the theater. In fact, much of the film functions like a chamber play, with scenes often revolving around little more than a couple of people having intense conversations in small rooms.
If all of this leaves Cronenberg’s film feeling somewhat inconsequential in a storytelling sense, the silver lining is in the way the characters develop. A Dangerous Method’s concluding moments convey that deep, irrevocable change has occurred in the lives of both Jung and Spielrein. It also conveys that their turbulent engagement with each other – although dramatic and even costly – has left them better and richer than before. And even with the film’s lack of theoretical clarity or historical contextualization, this is something that feels like a real accomplishment.
In the end, A Dangerous Method is probably not a top-tier film on psychoanalysis, and it probably doesn’t rank as first-rate Cronenberg. However, with its excellent acting, design and script, it comes to mirror the therapists that populate its story. Despite considerable flaws, it commands respect and leaves you wanting more.