David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method superficially seems like an anomalous project for him, even for the more “respectable” latter day Cronenberg, but on greater reflection it might be the masterpiece he’s been inching toward for almost forty years. Based on Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure, it depicts some episodes from the birth of psychoanalysis, and so by extension from the birth of modern ideology and culture. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) seizes on a deeply disturbed patient, Sabrina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), as an ideal object for the new methods originated by Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen); his success helps build his stature as Freud’s primary disciple, and the two men meet and become friends. Their relationship sours however, ostensibly because Jung has an affair with Spielrein and lies to Freud about it, but more broadly because of a profound disagreement about the nature and purpose of the new methodology; at the same time, Spielrein becomes a doctor and a formidable theorist in her own right.
The best stories
I have to concede at the outset that my knowledge of this material is extremely limited, and I can’t come close to assessing the historical accuracy or fairness of what it portrays (in several long published interviews, Cronenberg has shown himself a formidable and phenomenally well-informed defender of his choices). But on its own terms it’s thrillingly complex and overflowing with implication and nuance; one of the most gripping films of ideas in a long time. Primarily, of course, it’s “about” the talking cure, illustrating how some of the ambiguity surrounding its popular perception to this day (it would be hard for anyone to watch the film without a stray thought of Woody Allen intruding at some point) was inherent to its conception. Freud insists on a rigorous focus on diagnosing and clarifying, within a highly sexualized taxonomy; Jung argues against this, but it’s ambiguous whether his objection is scientific or rather strategic, that Freud unnecessarily limits the discipline’s popular acceptance and social import. Conversely, Freud’s objection to Jung’s increasing interest in mysticism and metaphysics, on leading patients to a fuller life rather than on merely fixing their ills, is clearly in large part tactical (to the extent not based in intuitive antipathy to such mumbo-jumbo).
In other words it’s largely about who has the best stories, concisely illustrated in several scenes when the characters, with a glibness that’s objectively rather ludicrous, shoot off interpretations of each other’s dreams. Put another way again, it’s about a battle over the creation of meaning, taking place at a time when the world was up for grabs (when Freud refuses to share his most recent dream on the basis that it would undermine his authority, the pending breakdown of the relationship is clear). Most of the film takes place in the most rarified and elegant of settings, barely touched by the kind of real people with whom the dueling physicians are ostensibly concerned, but signs of erosion are clear. Jung’s wife, who spends much of the film preoccupied by her failure to conceive a son rather than daughters, is astonished near the end by the notion that a first time mother and her husband would both prefer a girl. And Jung and Freud travel to America together; as they view the Statue of Liberty, Jung describes it as the land of the future, whereas Freud wonders if the country’s ready for “the plague” that’s about to hit it – the nexus of those two remarks already foreseeing the fraught legacy of the just-dawning “American century.” A further point on historical import: Freud emphasizes psychoanalysis as a specifically Jewish discipline, a characterization that Jung resists, but which would be central to its evolution (and to their treatment, and Spielrein’s, by the Nazis).
The most coherent theorist in the film, arguably, is another character again, a doctor called Otto Gross who sees much of society as a cumbersome impediment to satisfying core desires – those for sexual pleasure. Gross puts this into action by placing his own urges over any ethical or other concerns, a position he explains with such charismatic certainty that he influences Jung’s much more conventional instincts. Although compelling on its own terms, for its freedom from the clutter that afflicts Jung and Freud’s thinking, it’s also of course completely unworkable as a basis for a coherent society (as illustrated again by Gross’ own fate). And that’s the point again – this isn’t just about who has the best science, assuming the question is even meaningful in this context.
Astonishingly, Cronenberg manages to treat all this in barely more than an hour and a half. As I mentioned at the start, the film might not seem like his: the popular perception of a Cronenberg film is still heavily influenced by his genre heyday, when he was famous for his externalized traumas, for weird growths and transformations and head explosions - effective representations of malaise, but a blunt diagnostic instrument. A Dangerous Method is astonishingly tightly controlled, even more so than his most recent films (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises), and detractors find it static and overly talky. But surely that’s the point: whatever those earlier horrors were hinting at and whatever easy pleasures they provided, they were only precursors to the truly dangerous investigative method, to strip away all easy crutches and elaborations, and to engage directly with the origins of the modern self (and thus its attendant malaises).
Mannered and artificial
Put that way, it might sound as if the success of A Dangerous Method is measured by not being enjoyable, but it seems to me quite riveting. My brief synopsis above fails to convey how Spielrein is at the heart of the film, with Knightley’s portrayal of her also sharply dividing reactions. A local critic called her “mannered and artificial,” which again seems to miss the point entirely: how would one “naturally” portray a deeply troubled woman at the centre of a historical transformation, engaged in an unprecedented form of self-discovery, without drawing on contemporary actorly conventions which would certainly have nothing to do with the “real” Spielrein (not least of all for the obvious artificiality that none of this actually happened in the English language)? Knightley’s work seems to me immensely eloquent and effective, not least of all in the painstakingly precise sex scenes, superbly encapsulating the film’s tensions (that same critic chided Cronenberg for seeming “much more comfortable dealing with eroticism as subtext than text,” which is even dumber than the first thing I quoted). Overall, even if the film were shown to be largely inaccurate or misleading, it would still be tremendously stimulating on its own terms; I feel like I could just continue right on and write a whole second article about it.