With A Dangerous Method, director David Cronenberg sets out to make "an elegant film that trades on emotional horror." We are not disappointed. From the wrenching opening scene in which 18-year-old Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) is dragged screaming into Burgholzi mental hospital, we are both horrified and seduced. We wonder what could possibly help this deranged young woman gain any semblance of sanity. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbinder) calmly and competently takes on the challenge, using Sigmund Freud's new and controversial method of psychoanalysis. By 1904, the psychoanalytic method was spreading throughout Europe and had reached Jung in Zurich.
The film is laden with multiple levels of meaning. Even the title, A Dangerous Method, is multi-layered. The phrase comes from American psychologist William James' reaction to Freud's new method of psychoanalysis, "Symbolism is a most dangerous method." James was referring to Freud's use of analogical thinking to penetrate to the unconscious mind using symbols and metaphors. To his medical colleagues in a century dominated by scientific materialism, Freud's analogical reasoning appeared unscientific. What mattered to Freud was that his method worked. It allowed him to cure his patient's suffering. His more materialist colleagues conducted futile searches for pathogens as causes for hysteria and other mental diseases, yielding only a brain mythology similar to the one we see today.
Freud's new method was dangerous in another way, which forms a pivotal point of the film. Freud found that in the process of psychoanalysis, his patients fell in love with him. Freud called this a "transference," because the patient transfers onto the psychiatrist her infantile love for a parent. This intimacy gives the therapist great power over his patient and this can be abused by an unethical therapist. Sex with patients was no less rampant in Freud's time than it is in our own. The historical evidence indicates that Freud did not misuse this power. With Jung, however, the situation is more ambiguous.
Jung's relationship with Sabina drives the action of the film. In Christopher Hampton's taut, fast-paced screenplay -- which has the condensed structure of a work of art or a dream -- Jung's character reveals itself layer by layer, betrayal by betrayal. Away from her abusive family and with intensive psychoanalysis, Sabina makes a remarkable recovery. After only two years, she is able to enroll in medical school. She has also fallen in love with Jung and invites him to have an affair. Jung is conflicted abut having a sexual relationship with a patient, but eventually his darker impulses, stirred by Sabina's demand for "ferocious" sex, take sway over his conscience.
Was it the bad influence of Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), an amoral free-thinking psychoanalyst, that pushes Jung over the edge to betray the doctor-patient relationship? The film suggests that Gross was at least a catalyst. Ultimately, it is Jung's own dark passions that drive him to Sabina.
Jung's self-effacing wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) adores her husband and gives him an exquisite sailboat. Jung turns his wife's love gift into a love nest for himself and Sabina. Surprisingly, from beneath her elegant exterior, Emma is capable of pulling out a betrayal of her own. "Did you think I would let you go without a fight," she asks Jung sweetly, after sabotaging his affair. Beneath the polished surfaces of these beautiful people lies the chilling thread of the film.
Jung corresponds with Freud (Viggo Mortenson) about Sabina and travels to Vienna for their first meeting. Here we find Freud concerned with why his method is being attacked by his colleagues in the medical community. At 50, Freud is looking for an intellectual heir to carry on the mantle of psychoanalysis. The brilliant Jung seems a likely candidate. The two men form an intimate friendship and even analyze each others dreams. Ultimately, however, Jung needs to break away from his father figure and we are not surprised by Jung's cruel jabs at Freud.
Michael Fassbender is flawless as the brilliant and glacial Jung, far removed from his own feelings and able to betray those who get close to him. In contrast, Viggo Mortenson portrays a warm, human and vulnerable Freud. Keira Knightly is riveting as the edgy Spielrein. It is a demanding role and Knightly carries it beautifully.
A Dangerous Method is both visually sumptuous and emotionally jarring. While some viewers might find the adult themes gratuitous, in my view they are integral to the film's artistry. Inspired by John Kerr's 1993 book, A Most Dangerous Method, and based on Christopher Hampton's stage play The Talking Cure, Cronenberg's film gives us a stirring interpretation of the previously untold story of Jung, Spielrein, and Freud.
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