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A Dangerous Method

In glancing at a few reviews prior to seeing A Dangerous Method, I recall one that noted audiences  finding the film "too talky."  While this seems tantamount to finding The Artist a tad too silent, it does point out the difficultly facing David Cronenberg and his accomplished screenwriter, Christopher Hampton (adapting his 2002 play, The Talking Cure, based on the novel by John Kerr, A Most Dangerous Method:  the story of Jung, Freud and  Sabina Spielrein).  Just how do you create something cinematic about the early days of psychoanalysis and a few of its leading figures?  Do you attempt to flesh out these extremely complex historical figures and do justice to most of the intellectual issues with which they grappled, at the risk of producing something that is too...well, clinical?  Or do you go the more florid, Ken Russel route with these august personages?  Freudomania, anyone?

A kind of middle ground is achieved,which goes back to Mr. Kerr's decision to include Russian Sabina Spielrein amongst the two giants in the history of psychology.  Beyond the fact that Ms.Spielrein may have been a significant source of inspiration to both Carl Gustav Jung and Sigmund Freud, her inclusion in the source novel as well Mr. Cronenberg's film, gives the story some needed motion and intensity.  Without her, A Dangerous Method might not have seemed so dangerous after all, even lapsing into an epistolary enterprise, as it sometimes does.  But Spielrein (Keira Knightly) does show up at the Burgholzi mental hospital in Zurich in which Jung (Michael Fassbender)  is employed, first as a deeply troubled patient and later as a promising medical student.  Eventually, the reserved  Jung crosses lines of both matrimony and professionalism by embarking on a romantic relationship with Spielrein, a torrid and even ass-smacking affair.  This certainly brings the doctor and the film to life.  How closely all of this adheres to the lives of the real principals, I don't presume to know.        

The challenging role of Sabina Spielrein falls to Keira Knightly.  When at rest, Ms. Knightly's is a lovely, strikingly contoured face.  But the mouth and jaw, in moments of girlish exuberance, open and extend themselves into unselfconscious extremes.  You know:  happiness, excitement; that sort of thing.  So in the throes of psychosis is Sabina when she arrives at the Burgholzi mental hospital that she can barely get out her words; in analysis with Dr. Jung, she expectorates them as much as speaks them.  At such moments, tortured expanses for Sabina between thought and utterance as she tries to expel words with painful associations, Ms. Knightly seems on the verge of dislocating her jaw from the rest of her skull.  It's a brave performance that teeters toward the ridiculous without ever falling in upon itself.  The Russian accent might waver, but she never seems to lose her sense of the complex character.

Mr. Cronenberg actually keeps the ass-smacking (some sort or riding crop it would appear is the sexcessory in question) to a minimum in the brief scenes when Jung and Spielrein give way to their passions.  During her analysis, Sabina admits to her considerable shame that while physically punished as a child her reaction was one of arousal, not revulsion.  One of the points of diversion for Jung and Freud (Viggo Mortensen), as their relationship devolves from devoted son and father (Freud refers to Jung at one juncture as "My son and heir") to something more akin to willful, boundary-pushing child and intransigent parent, is the elder's "...obsession with sexuality, his insistence on interpreting every symptom in sexual terms," as Jung notes with frustration after his first visit to Vienna.  Oh, that Freud -  sex, sex, sex.  But as Sabina says to Jung after his first visit with Freud, "In my case, of course, he'd have been right."  "But there must be more than one hinge into the universe," replies Jung.

For Jung, as rendered by Hampton and brought to chilly life by Fassbender, there are clearly other hinges.  He seems as seduced by Sabina's fierce intelligence and psychological insight as by any aspect of her physicality.  When the two give into their attraction, it happens according to their sharply contrasting personalities.  It is Sabina who first kisses Jung, putting a hand at the back of his neck and drawing him into a passionate embrace.  After the kiss, Jung barely moves or betrays emotion, saying, "It's generally thought to be the man who should take the initiative."  After a bit of pressure-releasing shop talk, Sabina points across the street to No. 7 Schonleinstrasse and says "If you ever want to take the initiative, I live in that building, there, in the bay window."

As with his reaction to the kiss, the clearly-bottled intensity on his face when striking Sabina from behind (...this is another thing.  Another thing in another country.  With me I want you to be ferocious....I want you to punish me," she tells him in typically direct fashion) or the fact that his shirt and tie never come off during their first sexual encounter, Jung's emotional aperture is clearly narrower than his Russian patient, student and lover.  The trim figure of Fassbender's Jung possesses an unmistakable reserve.  We see this in his carefully measured steps or even the brief intervals in which he is out in the beautiful sailboat purchased for him by his wife, Emma (Sarah Gadon)  - "The boat you always wanted.  With red sails." - gliding across very placid waters of Lake Zurich, the boat never seen quite in full sale an apt parallel to Herr Doktor's usual calm.  None-the-less, both Hampton and Fassbender have created something more complex than a meek, emotionless clinician.  The blue eyes look out steadily from behind the wire frames.  And much this Jung is averse to conflict with Freud or tumult runaway passion, he walks steadily unto the psychic breach when he deems it necessary or inevitable.      

Jung's propriety is challenged not only by Sabina, but by a patient referred to him by his mentor.  Working in a second straight film with David Cronenberg a bearded Vincent Cassel plays Dr.  Otto Gross.  "...a most brilliant, but erratic character," as Freud refers to him.  The rutting, drug-gobbling Gross seems the embodiment of that part of the psyche Freud would later label the id.   "If there's one thing I've learned in my short life, it's this:  never repress anything!" Gross says to Jung during their first session together, which occurs not with the patient on a chair or couch, but roaming around Jung's office picking up whatever catches his attention.  When Jung later expresses his unease about Gross to Sabina, she asks, "Do you mean you doubt your power to convince him?"  "Worse than that:  I'm afraid of his power to convince me." Jung answers.

Unlike his role as the homosexually-respressed Russian gangster in Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, Mr. Cassel gets to play a character here who certainly knows what he wants and isn't shy about expressing or pursuing it.

A Dangerous Method marks the third straight collaboration between David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen.  One might say that the two are in a state of diminishing returns from A History of Violence to Eastern Promises to their current effort.  But if the slope is tilting downward, the angle is not steep.  Behind his own beard, the ever-versatile Mortensen well nigh disappears into his evocation of Sigmund Freud.  Whether it's just the facial hear, or perhaps some preparatory eating, he's slightly rounder of face than we're used to seeing him, puffing away at cigars.  This Freud is a race and class conscious man whose sensitivities and droll nature are encapsulated in his response to Jung, who wonders why it matters, with the numerous obstacles facing the nascent movement of psychoanalysis that all of its Vienna practitioners (as Freud had pointed out) are Jewish:  "I don't see what difference that makes."  "That, if I may say so, is an exquisitely Protestant remark."

It's just a cigar, okay?  Michael Fassbender as Jung and Viggo Mortensen as Freud
 in A Dangerous Method.

Most of these encounters, whether Jung and Spielrien, or Freud and Jung, are shot by Cronenberg and his cinematographer Peter Suschitzky in deep focus.  It's an appropriate visual analog for the frequent two-party give and take of the "talking cure" and playing out the A Dangerous Method's key relationships.  Occasionally, this occurs Persona-style, with one face in profile while another directly in the camera's line of sight, without the relative bombast of countenaces being literally cheek by jowl, as was the case with Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in the Bergman film.  

Eventually, Jung and Freud fall out over more than the latter's fixation with sex  - "I think Freud's obsession with sex probably has a great deal to do with the fact that he never gets any," observes Gross, rather an expert on getting some, to Jung, during one of their provocative conversations.  There are the matters of race and class, those that tend to preoccupy people, unlike Jung, who don't have theirs held against them.  It is implied that Freud is thrown by Jung's beautiful home, bought by his rich wife, who also purchases a first-class stateroom for him when the two men sail for a psychoanalytical congress in America.  As they board their ship, Jung says "I go this way," meaning toward his pricey accommodation, an obvious symbol the growing rift between the men.  Freud regards Jung as he walks away with what could generously be termed a frown.  As for race, Freud states the case most pointedly to Sabina, while she studies in Vienna, two years after Jung has ended their relationship:  "I'm afraid your idea of a mystical union with a blond Siegfried was inevitably doomed.  Put not your trust in Aryans. We're Jews, my dear Miss Spielrein; and Jews we will always be."

There is also what Freud refers to as Jung's "second-rate mysticism and self-aggrandizing shamanism." Freud  confines himself to the probity of reason of reason and science.  Jung seeks out his "other hinges," his "uncharted territory."  The final conversation between Jung and Spielrein occurs in 1913, the latter married and a doctor in her own right.  Emma Jung, meeting Sabina for the first time, expresses her fear that her husband is heading for a nervous breakdown, never having recovered from his break with Freud.  By his own admission, Jung has been having apocalyptic dreams, an avalanche which turns "...into blood.  The blood of Europe."  Of course, World War I was at hand.

Jung's dark period was to continue.  He wrote of his strange voices and visions in journals, even inducing hallucinations because he deemed them worthwhile.  These writings over a sixteen-year-period he transcribed into what became known as his "Red Book."  It's one of the many aspects of these extraordinary people that bears a level of examination hardly possible in a four-hour film, much less one of  well shy of two hours.  But Mr. Cronenberg, aided by his actors (at the risk of  triggering of troubling, if not apocalyptic visions,  the part of Sabina Spielrein was apparently written with Julia Roberts in mind; let your Mary Reilly flashbacks commence....), has delivered an arresting 99 minutes.  It's not without ideas, A Dangerous Method.  Among them, there is the implicit reminder that bearing great insight into human frailty in no way exempts one from such weakness.  And perhaps, behind two very famous men stood a woman whose life and works deserves a closer look.              

As contrasted with a very worthwhile film like The Tree of Life, one that addresses its large themes with equally large (if rather too concrete) answers, there's something to be said for a film like A Dangerous Method.  While getting to know its principals, it seems worthwhile to broach complex ideas, expose relationships not so contradictory as often thought.  All of this a beginning or a continuation of a process, not a tidy and possibly artificial conclusion.  Go forth and continue to think about these ideas and these people.  All rather suitable to psychoanalysis, the subject matter at hand, don't you think?  I mean, how do you feel about that?



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