11/24/2011 03:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'A Dangerous Method': Does The Film Do Sabina Spielrein Justice?

She overcame extreme mental illness related to childhood abuse and entered medical school while she was still in psychiatric treatment. A professional paper she wrote was arguably the basis for one of Freud's best known theories. And she was one of the earliest pioneers of child psychoanalysis.

But in spite of all of those accomplishments, Sabina Spielrein is now mostly known as the patient who slept with Carl Jung.

Since the 1977 discovery of the first box of her letters and papers, which revealed Spielrein's close personal relationship with Jung, her former doctor, and her professional relationship with Freud, Spielrein has been the subject of fascination in many quarters. Spielrein -- and her interactions with both Jung and Freud -- have been the subject of at least three books in English, an entire issue of the Journal of Analytical Psychology, two plays (including Chris Hampton's "The Talking Cure"), and two films. The second, "A Dangerous Method," premiered last night in New York and L.A.

That's not much compared to the quantity of narrative and analysis that has been devoted to Freud or Jung, or even some of the best-known female psychoanalysts, but before 1977 Spielrein was hardly known at all. That's in large part because in 1923 she moved her practice to then-Bolshevik Russia, where she was from, and because she was executed by the Nazis in 1941.

"We never got a chance to really know what she could do," said Deirdre Blair, author of "Jung: A Biography," which covers Jung's relationship with Spielrein extensively. "Who knows if there's not a suitcase in Russia filled with things that she wrote that we may never see."

As we all know, nothing can bring a person out of obscurity like a brush with Hollywood, and Spielrein is now getting the full treatment. "A Dangerous Method," directed by David Cronenberg, stars Keira Knightly as Spielrein, Michael Fassbender as Jung, and Viggo Mortensen as Freud.

In many ways, the movie, based on Chris Hampton's play, is a flattering portrait. Knightly's Spielrein is a fiercely intelligent, often headstrong woman -- they type of personality her diaries show her to have been. And though the climax the film is clearly moving toward is the allegedly sexual affair between Jung and his patient, Spielrein appears throughout as the intellectual equal of both Jung and Freud, though she is only a student when she meets them. Once Jung deems her cured, we see her living alone in Zurich, which as the daughter of well-to-do parents living thousands of miles away, she was in a unique position to do. We also see her calmly proposition Jung, a married man -- not standard behavior for a well-educated and cultured unmarried woman in her time, especially given the man was her doctor and dissertation adviser. And we see her propose her theory of the death instinct -- which Freud later footnoted in his book on the topic, "Beyond the Pleasure Principle." The film acknowledges the idea as hers.

But "A Dangerous Method" also glosses over a few important issues. First of all, psychoanalysis was developed by Freud, the man who called female sexuality a "dark continent" and asserted that the entire female sexual experience arose from a sense of inadequacy around not being male. He so misunderstood women that he wrote in his essay "On Narcissim," "To be loved is a stronger motive for them than to love." He also developed many of the theories that brought him such renown through his work with female patients who were never recognized for their contributions. The film provides almost no sense that there was anything problematic about his methods or theories with regard to women -- which is a major omission in a movie about a female analysand and colleague whose ideas he and Jung arguably borrowed or suppressed, depending on which book you read.

Then there is the film's portrayal of the torrid sexual relationship between Spielrein and Jung, including a fair amount of S & M performed at Spielrein's request. This is great for drama, but there's no proof that any of it actually happened -- no explicit diary entry, no DNA evidence and most definitely no sex tape. Jungian psychoanalyst Coline Covington, who published "Sabina Spielrein: Forgotten Pioneer of Psychoanalysis," a collection and commentary on Spielrein's hospital records from the time she was in Jung's care, doesn't think their love affair was sexual. "Jung was too anxious about his career and marriage to rock the boat," she told The Huffington Post. "Emma Jung came from a very good family with a lot of money. I think he would have worried about getting [Spielrein] pregnant." But whether Jung and Spielrein were lovers or not, thanks to Cronenberg's film, Spielrein will now be known as Jung's first mistress, more than she will ever be known for her contributions to child psychology.

And the other problem with the film -- or at least the way it represents Spielrein -- is that it isn't told from her point of view. She is the first patient with whom Jung practiced talk therapy, and according to the film, her case inspired him to get in touch with Freud; her ideas allegedly stimulated both men's thinking. And yet this story clearly isn't hers. Instead, it's about the purpose she served in Jung's life: the professional challenge, the intellectual sounding board, the protege, the object of desire -- or at least counter-transference -- and finally, the one who got away.

When Spielrein visits Jung at the end of the film (spoiler alert), by now married, establishing herself in her own branch of psychoanalysis and pregnant, Jung tells her that the child should have been his, which is fairly offensive coming from the man who dumped her. She, however, agrees. For a pair of lovers separated by circumstance, this might be poignant. But the way Jung has increasingly made their interactions all about him calls for a different ending. I wanted her to turn to him and say, very professionally, that she's sorry he feels that way.