The opening scene of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method shows a hysterical woman who looks like she was captured from the depths of hell. This woman is Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) on her way to be treated by Carl Jung (Michael Fassbenber) with the help of the so-called “talking cure.”
Spielrein, who later in her life became one of the first female psychoanalysts, is the focus of this poignant, intellectual – almost clinical – film. The script was adapted by Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement) from his play The Talking Cure, which is in turn based on John Kerry’s history of the development of psychoanalysis: A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud and Sabina Spielrein. A well educated Russian Jew with aspirations of becoming a doctor one day, Spielrein was sent to Zurich in 1904 in hopes of being cured from her violent hysteria. Jung used “the talking cure” on her. The method worked and after a year, Spielrein was able to enrol in medical school and graduated five years later. Alongside Freud, she championed the theory of destruction as indelible to becoming one’s self, and thus established an interesting relationship between sex and death.
Cronenberg’s film is a close look at the relationship between Jung and Spielrein, which escalated very fast from patient – doctor to mistress – punisher. During one of her first talking sessions, Spielrein is asked by Jung “Tell me about the first time you remember being beaten by your father.” With her jaw nervously clenching and her arms nervously tightening between her thighs, she mutters quietly, and then almost tearing up says loudly, “It excited me.” There is a quiet jolt in Jung’s expression and a spark in his look which reveals something other than medical excitement over a breakthrough with a patient. Jung, whose marriage with Emma (portrayed by Canadian Sarah Gadon, in one of her first feature film performances) is best described as stable, soon finds himself in an extra-marital relationship with Spielrein. “I want you to punish me,” she tells him. He obeys.
Meanwhile, Jung seeks advice from Freud (a brilliant Viggo Mortensen), his “father figure” about the future of psychoanalysis. However, while Jung wants to explore the powers of mysticism and the possibilities of bettering patients after their troubles have been pointed out to them, Freud believes that psychoanalysis should not do any of that and that it should remain purely scientific. Moreover, he dismisses any new theory Jung tries to elaborate and continuously tries to persuade him that every psychological trouble has a sexual root. “Of course in my case he is right,” says Spielrein. The flowering sexual relationship between Jung and Spielrein , which exploded precisely because Jung tried so hard to repress his desires, is perhaps another hint that we dismiss Freud today because we are at heart puritans.
A Dangerous Method is one of the best movies to come out in 2011, and I remain oblivious and confused as to why the Academy did not nominate it. Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein gives the best performance of her young career. Her presence seems to intimidate even the great Mortensen and Fassbender whenever they share the screen with her. She is both vulnerable and incredibly bold, as in the scene when she suddenly grabs Jung and kisses him. When he asks her “Don’t you think it’s a man’s role to do this?”, she says “Don’t you think there’s something male in every woman, and something female in every man? If you ever want to take the initiative, I live in that building there.” Needless to say that Mortensen and Fassbender are as great and as unrecognizable as ever. To play Freud, Mortensen even practiced what he thought was Freud’s writing style and all the letters we see in the movie were in fact hand-written. Another scene-stealer is Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross, a walking id complex if there ever was one in psychoanalysis. “Freud is obsessed with sex because he never gets any,” he quips to Jung. Meanwhile, Gross’ way of treating patients is to give them exactly what they want, to “never repress anything.”
The film’s script is exquisite and full of unforgettable lines. One of the most beautiful scenes is when Jung tells Spielrein: “Sometimes you have to do something unforgivable, just to be able to go on living.” In real life, this is how his last letter to her ended. The shots consist of many extreme close-ups of faces, revealing tension or sometimes stoic calm, as when Jung’s wife calmly declares that she wouldn’t give him up without putting up a fight. It is thrilling to watch the characters struggle intellectually as well as emotionally, especially Jung who spent his whole life trying to challenge Freud. Sex, among other things, is all in his head.
By Radina Papukchieva
Follow me on twitter @Papukchieva