A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Beautifully textured white writing paper with ink makes up the background for the opening credits in David Cronenberg's masterful inquiry into the birth of psychoanalysis. Both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were great letter writers and A Dangerous Method is carefully constructed, based on the vast amount of resultant documents, eager to be accurate in all the details.

Audiences will be less familiar with the name Sabina Spielrein, Jung's patient, who later became a psychoanalyst herself. Despite her important work in the field, Freud merely gave her a footnote and Jung didn't mention her at all. Cronenberg's film is her story as much as theirs.

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Keira Knightley, who had already turned into a remarkable actress in Massy Tadjedin's Last Night (2011), will be tough to beat at next year's Academy Awards for her portrayal of Spielrein. Screaming and hitting the walls of the coach that transports her, in 1904, to Bleuler's Burghölzliklinik, the psychiatric centre where the young Jung is experimenting with new techniques, the Russian girl Sabina looks like a wild animal dressed in white lace.

"I'm not mad, you know," she says and looks like she is handcuffed to her chair, although she clearly isn't. When she speaks, or tries to speak, her lower jaw is pushed so far forward that it becomes an obstacle and simultaneously, self-protection. The experiment is, of course, the Talking Cure, and there is nothing more dangerous than language.

"Humiliation", Knightley presses the word out of her mouth with much effort, is what she needs to address. Sabina Spielrein's "hysteria", as it used to be diagnosed at the time, the illness of the uterus, is well documented. Screenwriter Christopher Hampton saw the notes of Spielrein's symptoms during his research. The deforming of her body was extreme and this raised the question for David Cronenberg, "how high we can pitch that." "It should be centered around the mouth," the director explained during the press conference.

With the speaking cure progressing, the young woman loses the "hysteria". She talks about her Russian-Jewish family and about her "angel", who tells her things in German. When she wonders why, Jung explains dead-pan: "Angels always speak German. It's traditional."

Michael Fassbender is very interesting as Jung - he is likable, yet completely opaque. He gets away with rudeness and nonsense and his calm demeanor lures in not only his patients and the audience, but also father figure Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), at least for a few years.

The first meeting between Freud and his "crown prince" Jung at Berggasse 19, in Vienna, is presented here as a conversation lasting 13 hours. Freud, a father of six, who did not marry an extremely wealthy wife like Jung did, sees the young man from Switzerland as his most important heir. "Here in Vienna we are all Jews," he says. "I don't see what difference it makes," comments Jung. "That is an exquisitely Protestant remark," Freud sums it up.

In the end it is Jung's interest in the paranormal, the dabbling in mysticism that is most disturbing to Freud, who fights for psychoanalysis to be recognised as a science and sees Jung's religious interests as professional suicide. And then there is also the fact that Jung travels with him to America on the same boat but in a first-class stateroom. Freud warns the Jewish Spielrein not to count on her Aryan Siegfried, as much as they both love Wagner's Rheingold: "We're Jews and Jews we will always be."

Let's not forget Vincent Cassel (of Mesrine fame) who is a terrific Otto Gross, a devilish seducer and corruptor of analysts and patients. A master at manipulating transference. Or as his father used to say: "Watch out for him, he bites."

Cronenberg structures his film in circles: during one of the early therapy sessions, Spielrein and Jung cross a beautiful bridge in the forest, she drops her coat on the ground and he hits the coat with his walking stick, foreshadowing their future and illuminating her past. When she plays with her food, a kind of dark ur-slime she threw into the wash-basin or is fished out of a muddy pond, the direction does not lack humour.

Cronenberg has a long history of challenging his audience with the reality of the human body: In Videodrome (1983) the body becomes a video recorder that takes in, plays and ejects tapes, in Dead Ringers (1988) twin gynecologists, both played by Jeremy Irons, create new monstrous looking devices to examine women (when they complain about pain, they are misconstructed, not the instruments).

What is very striking, is the fact that Spielrein starts to really heal when she is given work, neither the talking cure, nor the affair with her doctor make her look so at ease. She is allowed to assist Jung in his research and in a telling scene, Jung's wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) becomes their patient, hooked up to a lie detector-like machine while answering word-association questions for their experiments: Vienna-woods; child-soon; family-unit; sex-male; wall-flower; fame-doctor; divorce-no; What more does anyone need to know about the wife's state of mind?

"I promised you a son on Christmas day - and there she is, a day late and the wrong sex," apologises Emma Jung to her husband after giving birth to their first child. Don't underestimate her, though, the real Emma wrote two books about mythology and became a psychoanalyst herself.

During the press conference, I had asked Hampton and Cronenberg about the stunning image of Jung's boat with red sails. Hampton responded "the boat was given to Jung by his wife Emma" and then Cronenberg jumped in to say that: "It is a question about accuracy, the film is accurate in all the details."

"It was the process of resurrection." That's what interested the director about this tale of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the beginning of modern times, he said and that if asked, he feels more empathy for Freud. "I had no agenda - just to have them come back to life." Jung would have liked that answer.

Reviewed on: 10 Oct 2011
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Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightley star in David Cronenberg's look at the early days of psychoanalysis.
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Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: Christopher Hampton

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Keira Knightley, Michael Fassbender, Vincent Cassel

Year: 2011

Runtime: 93 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France, Ireland, UK, Germany, Canada

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