Damn you, wireless internet! This would have been up hours ago, but I couldn’t get a damn signal. Is it worth the wait? That’s not for me to say…
I’ll stay away from therapy.
In Zurich, in 1904, a young Russian woman named Sabina Spielrein is placed under the psychiatric care of Dr Carl Jung. Although he has never met the man, Jung is a proponent of the theories put forth by the Austrian professor Sigmund Freud regarding the emerging field of psychoanalysis. Sabina is to be the first patient Jung attempts to treat using Freud’s “talking cure”. Spanking ensues.
David Cronenberg is one of the most consistently unique filmmakers of the last thirty years. His films are like no-one else’s, and most if not all of his films have had the theme of self-realisation at their core. You could argue that a film by Cronenberg about the birth of psychoanalysis and its two most enduring figureheads was almost inevitable. Finally, that film has come along. Released in 2011, A Dangerous Method stars Michael Fassbender as Jung, Keira Knightley as Sabina and Viggo Mortensen as Freud. The screenplay was adapted by Christopher Hampton from his own play, which was based on the non-fiction book by John Kerr.
The first thing you notice about this film is the stark, simple photography. Cronenberg’s trademark detached shooting style creates the feeling that, while Jung is analysing Sabina, so the viewer is analysing Jung. The conclusions you will draw about these characters from watching each conversation play out will depend almost entirely on your own predilections.
The promotional material and even the blurb on Netflix made it appear that this film was Freud’s story, but the professor is actually a supporting character to the story of Jung and Sabina, albeit one whose presence can be felt even when he’s not on screen. While the main focus is on Jung primarily, Keira Knightley is the star. Her unflinching performance as a young woman plagued by hysteria who later becomes a noted child psychologist in her own right is the emotional core of the movie. The two men in her life were both so emotionally detached due to their work, but Fassbender humanises Jung marvellously, creating layers of repressed desire and turmoil under his buttoned-up facade, ending the movie on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Cronenberg’s muse Mortensen is a very different Freud from the grandfatherly fellow picked up by Bill and Ted. His pride and belief in his work borders on the tyrannical, passive-aggressively belittling anyone who would speak against his methods. Considering his insistence that all neuroses could be traced back to sexuality, I wonder what the man himself would have to say about the fact that a fat cigar is almost constantly between his lips…
Which brings me to the comedy. No this isn’t Carry On Freud, but there is a tangible thread of irony and sarcasm running through a lot of the scenes, particularly those featuring Vincent Cassel as the troubled analyst (and Jung’s patient) Otto Gross, who becomes as much of an influence on Jung as Freud himself. The scene where Freud and Jung first meet has a moment of almost sublime comedy that could make a dull movie watchable. Luckily, A Dangerous Method is by no means a dull movie. It is a fascinating piece of work with many layers of subtext and allusion, some of which I’m smart enough to know are there but dumb enough to not quite understand. A bit more knowledge of Wagner’s operas would stand me in better stead, I’d imagine. And even if you don’t quite follow all the subtleties, the end result is a lot like the psychotherapy it depicts; you get out of it what you are prepared to put in.