Minds on Fire
By Amy Taubin
David Cronenberg opens up the secret history of psychoanalysis in A Dangerous Method
The opening image of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method is of a woman screaming her head off, her face pressed against the window of a careening horse-drawn carriage. She is 17-year-old Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), whose amazing real-life story is the focus of this poignant, witty, intellectual adventure movie, an inquiry into the early years of psychoanalysis and the fraught father-son relationship between its all-too-human pioneers, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). Their divergent mappings of the unconscious still define how we imagine ourselves today.
The film’s script by Christopher Hampton sticks fairly close, in both structure and dialogue, to his play, The Talking Cure, produced in London in 2002 by the Royal National Theater with Ralph Fiennes as Jung and Jodhi May as Spielrein. Both play and film are indebted to John Kerr’s dense 1992 history of the development of psychoanalysis, A Most Dangerous Method, which gives a new spin to the famous Freud/Jung schism through its research on Spielrein and her effect on the theory and practice of both men and on their personal lives. A precociously intelligent Russian Jew from a well-to-do, educated family, Spielrein was sent to Zurich in 1904 in the hopes of curing her violent, incapacitating hysteria. She was one of Jung’s first psychoanalytic patients, and his success in treating her with an experimental method, “the talking cure,” allowed her to enroll in medical school the following year and graduate five years later with a degree in psychiatry. She married a doctor who was also a Russian Jew, had two daughters, practiced for about a decade in Geneva, and published papers—one of which was cited by Freud as an influence on his theory of “the death instinct.” In 1923 she returned to Russia, which in her absence had become the Soviet Union, hoping to teach psychoanalysis there. But history was not on her side. Her three brothers were murdered in the Stalinist purges; her husband died insane. Spielrein and her daughters survived Stalin only to be executed in 1941 by the Nazis when they occupied her town, Rostov-on-Don.
Like Hampton’s play, Cronenberg’s film (and despite its seeming classicism, this is a profoundly Cronenbergian work) takes place between 1904 and 1913. It depicts Jung’s analysis of Spielrein and their not entirely secret, stormy love affair—which begins while she is still his patient—against the background of Jung’s marriage and his disastrously Oedipal relationship with Freud. The restrained melodramatic narrative is built on two interlocking triangles. In both, Spielrein is the interloper, the destabilizing element. The more obvious or, we might say, traditional of the two involves Jung, Spielrein, and Jung’s wife Emma (Sarah Gadon). The other comes into focus as a triangle only if one applies a psychoanalytic lens, which the film encourages us to do—one of the ironies that Cronenberg brings into high relief (sometimes to hilarious effect) being the solipsistic traps within the psychoanalytic enterprise, with its transferences and counter transferences and its projections and introjections. (There’s as much shop talk in A Dangerous Method as in The Social Network or any television medical series.) When Spielrein, feeling betrayed and abandoned by Jung who has broken off their affair, writes to Freud requesting a consultation, she is in effect a daughter taking revenge on her brother by telling on him to their father. Spielrein and Jung have already shared a fantasy of an incestuous love, like the siblings Siegmund and Sieglinde in Wagner’s Ring cycle whose union produced Siegfried, the pure prince. But Jung, valuing his reputation and his relationship with the straitlaced Freud more than he does Spielrein, tries to cover up the affair, claiming that his patient is a fantasist whose aggressive sexual advances he resisted. Eventually Spielrein shames him into admitting something if not all of the truth. Jung’s initial deception, however, even more than his sexual transgression, adds to the misgivings Freud has about his flight into mysticism, causing Freud to question Jung’s worthiness to be his heir apparent, and leading to a complete break between them.
That pretty much covers the plot of A Dangerous Method, a story almost too good to be true, which is why, in real life, it was easily swept under the rug for decades. But in the mid-Seventies, a cache of papers was discovered that Spielrein—in a splendid example of parapraxis—had left behind when she departed for the Soviet Union. Among them were her exchanges of letters with both Jung and Freud, and the diary in which she confided her romantic passion for Jung and the erratic course of their relationship, using the code word “poetry” to stand in for their sexual activity. Readers of this revealing document (even readers who have themselves flirted with indiscretion on the page) find it impossible to determine exactly what went down—did they ever hit a home run or was it a matter of playing around at third base to their mutual satisfaction? In Hampton’s stage play, there is one scene in which there is blood on the bedclothes and several others that end in passionate kisses. But for Cronenberg, a bit of blood—the clinical evidence of virginity lost—does not suffice.
“I’m not mad, you know,” Spielrein says as she sits in a straight back chair in Jung’s office, looking like a terrified, cornered animal, her face and body wracked by contradictory impulses. Her lower jaw juts forward and locks; her lips pull back baring her teeth, her head twists; her body jackknifes in the chair, her hands clutch at each other, fly up and then down, ever so briefly pressing between her thighs as if she were simultaneously yielding to and suppressing the urge to masturbate. Her fear of what she might say is so great that every word is choked back before it’s released. In most movies, kineticism is achieved through camera movement and editing, usually as they are deployed in big action sequences. It’s very rare for a performance to take hold of a viewer in the solar plexus and for that body-to-body identification to be sustained for the entire duration of the narrative. I’m not talking about desire but rather a sense of connecting to the nervous system of the character on the screen, and out of that connection finding emotional empathy and intellectual understanding.
Need it be said that Cronenberg’s ongoing primary subject is the interpenetration of body and mind? By situating a film in the world of psychoanalysis and afflicting his protagonist with conversion hysteria (literally the transformation of psychical conflict into physical behavior) he can approach the issue with almost comical directness and also from a somewhat different angle than, say, the body horror of Dead Ringers, a film with which, nevertheless, A Dangerous Method has much in common. In both films, a masochistic female patient survives the treatment of male doctors whose pathology is in no less doubt than that of the institution that empowers them. What eventually destroys Spielrein is not Jung’s shabby, unethical treatment of her but the anti-Semitism that worries Freud far more than any internal arguments among his heirs over the nature of the libido. In the past decade, questions of Jewish identity and anti-Semitism have begun to surface in Cronenberg’s work, and in A Dangerous Method the character of Freud brings them to the foreground. Freud has chosen Jung as his heir apparent because he believes psychoanalysis needs to have an Aryan beard. But when he begins to doubt Jung’s intellect, talents, and sense of ethics, it weighs on him that the woman Jung has smeared and taken advantage of is a Jew. “We are and remain Jews,” Freud writes to Spielrein. The letter is paraphrased in the film along with another in which he writes that he’s pleased she’s given up her fantasy of “the Aryan prince.” It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for weak, self-deluded Jung.
And Cronenberg certainly goes out of his way to make the character sympathetic by casting Fassbender, an actor whose deep sense of sadness is palpable even when he plays arch villains, which is not the case here. A Dangerous Method is a character-driven film, and the actors, especially Knightley, are brilliant. Not only does she take enormous risks with the grotesque behavior of the early scenes, she sustains Spielrein’s distinctive combination of psychological fragility and intellectual toughness throughout—the sense of a mind on fire as well as a body. In the film, Spielrein is never completely cured, but she gains a measure of control over her physical symptoms, which wax and wane depending on the level of threat she feels within and without. Fassbender is a terrific foil for her, finding the confusion and even despair beneath Jung’s poker-faced professional manner. (I’m sure many viewers will identify with Jung and find their way into the film through him.) In one of Jung’s early analytic sessions with Spielrein, she divulges what incited her hysteria—not merely that her father beat her, but that she felt humiliated by her sexual arousal when he did. At that moment, Cronenberg cuts to a close-up of Jung, and we see a tiny flicker of excitement in his eyes, which is easy to interpret as triumph that “the talking cure” is a success. But a few months later in her bedroom when he’s whipping her ass, we understand that something more complicated was taking place. Included in the end credits is the following disclaimer: “This film is based on true events, but certain scenes, especially those in the private sphere, are of a speculative nature.”
Melodrama, a mad profusion of professional lingo, and whips in the bedroom notwithstanding, A Dangerous Method is a spare, if not austere movie, Bressonian in its ellipticality and compression of time. The passage of months, even years, are often marked by an abruptly closed or opened door. Howard Shore’s score, poised between late Beethoven and early Wagner is discreetly expressive. What makes the form of the film as radical as its underlying subject—Freud’s concept of the unconscious—is the monkey wrench Cronenberg throws into the construction of two shots, three shots, and reverse-angle POVs (or shot/countershot sequences as they are customarily termed). In recent movies, Cronenberg has favored a somewhat wide-angle lens that flattens space, making the actor in the foreground seem disproportionately large in comparison to the actor in the background. Most directors who use wide-angle lenses try to cover this distortion through movement. Here, however, particularly in the “talking cure” scenes, Cronenberg employs the disproportion to reveal something about subjectivity: how one’s self-involvement can dwarf one’s perception and comprehension of the other, or vice versa. A Dangerous Method thereby becomes a tragic study of the absence of true reciprocity in human relations.
If the film’s opening image is of Spielrein, the closing shot and the last line belong to Jung. Spielrein, who is married and pregnant, has come to say goodbye. Oddly, it’s the first time in the film that we get a glimmer that this was indeed a serious love affair for him as well as for her. They are sitting lakeside in the Jung family’s backyard. As Spielrein starts to leave, Jung pulls himself out of his near catatonic depression long enough to offer an explanation for his abandonment of her: “Sometimes you have to do something unforgivable, just to be able to go on living.” (In real life, the last letter Jung wrote to Spielrein ended with that line.) It is an achingly sad, romantic moment, but after I left the theater, I couldn’t help thinking about all the unforgivable compromises Jung would make as he sat out World War II by the side of a Swiss lake. This is a major film, for sure.