A Review of A Dangerous Method: Is that a Log in your Dream, or are you just Happy to See Me?Posted: April 7, 2012
Freud to Jung: “This log in your dream. I think you should entertain the possibility that the log represents the penis”
I’m a big fan of David Cronenberg. His criminally underrated A History of Violence and Eastern Promises are two of my favorite movies of the past five years. I’m also a big fan of Sigmund Freud, even if I do make fun of him quite a bit.
(It’s not my fault. So many inappropriate jokes, so little time).
However, although the movie A Dangerous Method promised to unite two things I liked – Freud and Cronenberg – I was more than a bit skeptical.
After all, for the past few years Cronenberg’s films have been saturated with violence. His movies are like a funeral director’s wet dream. What was he going to do with Freud and Freud’s great invention, the “talking cure”? Was Cronenberg going to have patients brawling in the corridors of Freud’s cramped apartment? Would Freud beat his critics with his cane? Was Carl Jung going to be a secret member of the mafia?
I was not convinced. I was even less convinced when I saw the trailer. “Oh no!” I groaned. “Not a love triangle. Please, not a love triangle. And why in the world is Keira Knightley’s russian accent so terrible? Don’t they have vocal coaches?”
But a even bad trailer could not detract from the lure of Freud. I figured it would be a fun movie. It would get things very wrong, and my friends and I would laugh, and deconstruct it (as literature students are prone to do). And Viggo Mortenson would be awesome, even if he wasn’t carrying around a big sword. (insert immature joke about phallic symbols here).
Well, it was a fun movie, filled with lines about logs and penises. And Viggo Mortenson showed off his impeccable comic timing (someone hand him an Oscar).
But it wasn’t just a fun movie. In fact, A Dangerous Method was – much to my surprise – simply sublime.
What I forgotten in my cynicism is that David Cronenberg isn’t interested in violence for violence’s sake. You don’t make A History of Violence if you’re just interested in blowing things up. Instead, Cronenberg is interested in violence as a symptom of a wider human condition. Why do we keep at it? Is it inevitable? Or is it something more – a collective delusion? A ritual?
In A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg pans the camera back, opening the view. Instead of looking at violence as a symptom of the human condition, he focuses on the lives of the people who changed our view of the human condition forever. It’s the story of the people who, at the turn of the 20th century, mapped the landscape of the human mind.
The movie opens with Sabina Spielrien, a violent, hysterical young woman, being dragged into a mental asylum. From her first seconds onscreen, we’re placed in an uncomfortable position: there’s something about Spielrien – especially about her inhuman movements – that makes us both want to watch her with fascination and to pull back in disgust. Nothing has happened, and yet we’re thrown off balance. The movie continues much in this vein: every normal event is slightly skewed, underlain with a quiet tension that seems ready to snap at any moment.
Spielrien’s doctor, Carl Jung, believes he can help her using a method pioneered by a Viennese physician named Sigmund Freud – the now-famous “Talking Cure.” As Spielrien improves, Jung begins a correspondance with Freud to document his success. From there, the movie tracks the developing relationships between Jung, Freud and Spielrien.
A Dangerous Method is an immensely self-contained piece of work. It focuses on the interactions between these three people to the exclusion of almost everything else. With such a narrow frame, A Dangerous Method risks being overly simplistic. But because Spielrein, Freud and Jung are so fascinating, the story is one of delicate complexity.
Too often, movie narratives fall victim to the obvious plot. Most of my movie-related rants have to do with how cowardly scripts are these days – every time a story stumbles across somewhere original, it runs back towards the obvious like a kid running towards a platter of chocolate chip cookies. I was pleased to see, however, that in A Dangerous Method, there are no such chocolate chip cookie characters. Jung, Freud and Spielrien are fascinating because the writers weren’t afraid of making them challenging or unlikeable.
Though Jung comes across as a find, upstanding man, he’s infuriatingly blind to his own neuroses. He will throw the people he loves in front of buses if they get in his way. Hell, he sometimes just throws them in front of a bus because he’s not paying attention. It’s not malicious – it’s just natural for him to put himself first, always first. And if the universe doesn’t bend his way, he’ll make it bend. Not surprisingly, his privilege drives Freud – and others – up the wall. Jung probably describes himself best as “nothing but a philistine Swiss bourgeois – a complete coward.” Sadly Jung’s self-awareness doesn’t lead to any character growth – he knows he needs to change, but is unwilling to do it. And unlike Freud or Spielrien, Jung’s not someone who has had to struggle in life, which makes his ultimate cowardice all the more unforgivable.
Freud is a case study in quiet brilliance. Every word out of Viggo Mortenson’s mouth is ambiguous. His dialogue seems filled with flashes of insight or moments of compassion; yet every phrase he speaks can also be read as an insult. He always seems to be reveling in a private joke.
Despite his brilliance, or perhaps, because of it, Freud is constrained by his fear of the outside world. Freud has spent so long as the poor, besieged doctor in Vienna, his theories mocked and his practice threatened, that the slightest hint of insubordination terrifies him. If Freud and Jung are alike in anything, it’s in their isolation – they’re both so smart, so new, so cutting-edge, that no one has yet joined them on the frontier of the human mind. Their shared interests and mutual respect should make them the perfect partners, and for a large part of the movie, they are. Freud acts as Jung’s mentor; Jung, in turn, idolizes Freud.
But Freud and Jung are separated by privilege and pride. In a revelatory moment near the beginning of the film, Freud tells Jung he doesn’t want to venture outside the current theories of psychoanalysis because the practice is already stigmatized enough as is. Casually, Freud adds: “and, of course, it does not help that all of the patients and practitioners in Vienna are Jews.” Jung replies “I don’t see why it should matter,” to which Freud rejoins “That, if I may say so, is an exceedingly protestant remark.” Jung cannot set aside his privilege long enough to see the difficulties Freud confronts. Freud, meanwhile, pushes Jung away to protect himself: he cannot fight against the world and fight against his friends at the same time. And he cannot open up to Jung either – he’s spent so long fighting that the slightest appearance of vulnerability would destroy him.
I loved Freud and Jung. I came to the movie specifically to see their interaction, and it did not fail me.
But though I came for them, I walked out cheering – and a little teary-eyed – for the third wheel of the trio, Sabina Spielrien. Spielrein is no doubt the character audiences will be most unfamiliar with – the majority of people have at least heard of Jung and Freud. I worry her relative obscurity will make her difficult to identify with, which is a shame, because she’s absolutely sublime.
It’s so refreshing to see a female character like Spielrein in a (somewhat) mainstream movie. In movies, male characters are almost always allowed more complexity than their female counterparts – but not in A Dangerous Method. On paper, Spielrein was have been a disaster – a woman with serious mental health issues who sleeps with her (married) physician. When I walked into A Dangerous Method, indeed, I was convinced poor Keira Knightley would be stuck playing the femme-fatale who distracts the Great Men from their Great Work. Which is SUCH an annoying stereotype. But I was pleasantly surprised.
The writers avoid reducing Spielrein to a love interest. Treating a woman like a full human being, regardless of her romantic state, seems like an easy task. For some reason, however, it’s a task the majority of Hollywood movies fail to accomplish.
Though Jung “cures” her, Spielrein doesn’t suddenly become a gorgeous princess. There is no dreaded Hollywood makeover where the disturbing “crazy” girl becomes a stunning leading lady. It’s also nice to see a movie that doesn’t pretend mental illness just goes away after a few therapy sessions. Spielrein continues to struggle with her mental illness over the course of the film, fearing, among other things, that her “insanity” will prevent her from becoming a physician. She still speaks haltingly, shyly, and retains most of her uncomfortable physical tics from earlier in the film. It’s still hard to look at her sometimes – she’s not embodied in a normative way.
Spielrein is also strong-willed and unapologetic about her desires, sexual and otherwise. Nor does the movie “punish” Spielrein for her ambitions – too often, ambitious women – women who desire, women who dare to want – are, well, punished (and not in a kinky S&M way, although we do get some S&M action in A Dangerous Method). If anything, Spielrein’s willingness to articulate what she wants is her saving grace – unlike Freud or Jung, she’s not destroyed by her unspoken desires.
True, Spielrien does fall in love with Jung, her physician, but of the two, she’s the one who behaves with the most maturity. When he breaks up with her and lies about their relationship, she doesn’t cling, she doesn’t rant and rave, she doesn’t spend the rest of the movie trying to bring him down. Which is quite impressive, given that Jung has just thrown her under the bus by telling Freud that Spielrien is a delusional lunatic who made up the affair.
Instead, Spielrien forces him to admit the truth to Freud, deducing (correctly) that this will convince Freud to take her on as a patient.** She finishes her dissertation. She becomes a physician in her own right. She’s widely respected in her own field: at the end of the movie, Jung’s wife asks Spielrein to take a depressed Jung on as a patient. It’s a neat reversal of the initial premise.
Even better, Spielrein is not “saved” by her romantic relationship with Jung. Instead, she saves herself through the “talking cure” and her academic work in the psychological field. Moreover, Spielrein’s intellectual development and her contributions to the psychoanalytic field are just as important as Freud’s or Jung’s – I was surprised, for example, to discover that it was Spielrein, not Freud, who first theorized the death instinct. I greatly appreciated the fact that neither Jung nor Freud (or anyone else) ever said something like “but you’re a woman! Women shouldn’t be psychoanalyzing/writing about sex/ going to college.” Or even “Well, as a female physician, you may have some problems.” They treat her as an intellectual equal. They collaborate with her on different projects. Freud even respects her enough to suggest that she take on some of his patients.
** Again, I am pleased to note that Spielrien takes control of her own mental health. When she breaks up with her boyfriend/therapist, she immediately finds a new therapist. Not a boyfriend. Girl has her priorities straight.
Besides, Jung and Spielrein’s interactions are quite interesting to watch. As fellow psychoanalysts, they’re always dissecting their own behavior towards one another. When Spielrein kisses Jung for the first time, they (of course) have to analyze the moment for the next five minutes. You can almost see Jung taking down mental notes, thinking of all the papers he could derive from a single brush of the lips.
As actors, I thought Michael Fassbender (Jung), Viggo Mortenson (Freud) and Keira Knightley (Spielrien) were all out of their comfort zones, which makes their superb work in A Dangerous Method all the more impressive.
Knightley is near-unrecognizable in her role as Spielrien. Her accent is spot-on – I don’t know how they managed to make it sound so terrible in the trailer. From the beginning, she strips any impression we had of her as the “young romantic lead.” Her moments as a hysterical mental patient are so powerful that they’re difficult to watch: when her body crumples and tangles as she forces herself to confess her “vile corruption,” I could barely keep my eyes on the screen. After Spielrein begins recovering, Knightley wisely keeps her from ever becoming a femme fatale, instead imbuing her with a physical awkwardness and a halting, intense pattern of speech that manages to simultaneously convey the woman’s strangeness and her fierce intelligence.
Fassbender, meanwhile, gives emotional depth to Jung’s love for Spielrien, and his defiance of Freud. Without this much-needed layer of vulnerability, the audience would be unable to stop themselves from despising him as an insensitive coward. His looks don’t hurt – my friend said she thought she was swayed towards Jung’s side because of Fassbender’s, er… charming appearance. And the way he looked in early 20th century garb
(I would like to add that I agree. Turn-of-the-century clothes look great on Fassbender. Just sayin’).
Mortenson’s work as Freud… well, he’s just fantastic. As always. He’s the master of double-speak in this movie – I never knew what he meant when he said anything. Which was the point. Mortenson also infuses Freud with a great deal of authority – a difficult task, given that Freud spends most of the movie sitting in a chair. I wouldn’t want to be in the same room as Mortenson’s Freud, is all I’m saying. I’d probably start babbling like an idiot. Or walk into a wall. Or babble like an idiot while walking into a wall. Perhaps most impressively, Mortenson manages to suggest Freud’s self-consciousness without undercutting his imposing presence.
From the script, to the directing, to the acting A Dangerous Method is an incredible movie. It gets under your skin. It avoids the obvious. It zigged when I expected it to zag. It’s also just damn fun to watch.
I therefore have no idea how A Dangerous Method did not get nominated for twenty five thousand Oscars. I would have put it up for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Support Actor. The only actor I wouldn’t have nominated was Fassbender – not because he’s any less inspiring than Knightley or Mortenson, but because Fassbender was going to get nominated for Shame anyways, and then he was going to win and -
Screw the academy, man.
Seriously. To my mind, Knightley and Mortenson shouldn’t just have been nominated – they should have been frontrunners. And so should the movie. The Help was nominated, and this wasn’t? If that’s not a sign that Hollywood isn’t interested in original stories, I don’t know what is.
Yet, even with the Academy’s Bad Attitude, I came out of the movie with joy in my heart. And not just because of the movie’s general awesomeness (although that accounted for much of my elation). I was also thrilled because my friend had just discovered Michael Fassbender.
“What else is he in?” asketh she.
Me: “X-men… uh, Jane Eyre… uh, Shame. That’s playing now, I think – “
Her: “We’re going.”
Unfortunately, that means everyone who reads this blog* will be subject to another “what the hell is wrong with the Oscars” post quite shortly since, yes, I have now seen Shame. And it’s even more incomprehensible to me why Michael Fassbender wasn’t nominated for best Best Actor.
But I’ll be reviewing the movie! And I promise, it’ll be shorter!
Oh, that was a tangled web of lies. It won’t.
I’m also now holding out hopes for a sequel, where Freud analyzes the wonderful modernist poet H.D. Can I suggest Noomi Rapace as H.D.? Would that not be wonderful?
*And by “everyone who reads this blog,” I mean the lovely CIA agents whose job it is to monitor all internet activity. Hi guys! Thanks for protecting us from the forces of evil! (and darkness. I also appreciate your protection from the forces of darkness)
Quick Stats on the Movie:
Passes the Bechdel test: YES! Right near the end of the movie, when Spielrein and Emma Jung discuss Spielrein’s career and their children. The movie also takes a surprisingly long time to pass the reverse Bechdel – not until Freud and Jung meet do we have a male-male interaction. It’s another sign of how this movie isn’t just about the men, which is lovely.
Presence of non-white characters: Absolutely not. Argh. Then again, it is turn-of-the century Europe, so the lack of POC makes some sense. But… still.