(directed by David Cronenberg, 2012)
My friend invited me to come to see this with her last night, on its first day of release. I went knowing very little about it, and without having ever seen a film directed by Cronenberg before. I know that when it was shown at the London Film Festival last year it had mixed reviews, but I found it a subtle and thought-provoking introduction to Freud’s and Jung’s psychoanalytic theories, and a film that was very well acted by all three of its protagonists. Writing these words, I’m becoming aware that everything I’ve seen or done recently has been described with a surfeit of superlatives, but I’m not being unduly nice, I’ve just been fortunate to have a spate of really enjoyable things to keep me occupied.
Cronenberg centres A Dangerous Method on the treatment of the hysterical Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who arrives in a carriage, thrashing and screaming and held down by two men, at the mountain clinic in Berghölzli in Switzerland where Carl Gustav Jung (Michael Fassbender) is looking for a patient to test his theories about a talking cure. The success of the programme, and Spielrein’s subsequent enrolment at the university to become a doctor herself, inspires Jung to write to Vienna, to the man whom he considers his spiritual father-figure, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen).
Of course, from the minute the words ‘father-figure’ are introduced, you suspect that trouble is brewing. Jung and Freud’s mutual respect begins to be clouded by fundamental differences between their theories: Freud is determined to reduce everything to the result of sexual urges, and aims simply to explain why people feel the way they do, while Jung yearns to find a place for the spiritual within his discipline, and to provide patients with ways they might hope to become the people they always wanted to be. Their relationship is also clouded by Jung’s deepening fascination with the highly intelligent Spielrein, mingling the academic and the sexual in a way which seems particularly appropriate.
I haven’t seen Fassbender in very much, although he caught my eye with his Mr Rochester in Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre. From what I’ve seen, he seems to be one of those actors who looks completely different in each role, and my friend, who’d recently seen him in Shame, commented that she’d never have recognised him. Viggo Mortensen was also virtually unrecognisable as the stout, bourgeois Freud, whose growing dislike of Jung – it is suggested – might be partly due to Jung’s unpleasant habit of showing off his wealth.
Where the film divides people, I think, is in how they react to Keira Knightley’s acting. For me, it was an extraordinary affirmation that the woman can actually act. For years she has been the complete opposite of Fassbender and Mortensen, in that every character she’s played has looked and behaved very much the same. She risked becoming one of those actors like Hugh Grant, who are hired because the part demands them, rather than because they can inhabit the part. But, in A Dangerous Method, she proved me triumphantly wrong. In the opening sequence she pushed herself to the extremes in representing the physical manifestations of insanity and I think she did a marvellous job. Throughout the film she convinced me that Spielrein was a strong, educated, progressive woman – a striking contrast to Jung’s demure and neglected wife. I just hope this is a sign that from now on she’s going to be choosing more character roles.
This would also work very well as a play, because it would really require only five actors: Jung, Freud, Spielrein, Emma Jung and Otto Gross. Jung is of course the key figure: the apparently well-adjusted man who becomes increasingly troubled by his feelings towards his masochistic patient, and who feels unable to accept a methodical principle that he feels is unnecessarily reductionist. Some aspects of the film made me think of a morality play. Jung is the central Everyman; Freud the distant Mephistophelian figure subtly pulling the strings to test him; Otto Gross, the liberal sensualist, is like Jung’s personal devil on his shoulder; and Spielrein? Maybe that’s where my analogy falls down.
If, like me, you grow fed up of the blockbusters, superhero films and romantic comedies that fill the cinema so much of the year, go to see this. It’s a reassuring sign that powerful, intelligent cinema is still being made and it has inspired me to root out my A-level Psychology textbooks and to learn a bit more about Freud’s and Jung’s theories…