A Dangerous Method is the story about the relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and how that relationship was a significant factor in the founding of the area of Psychology, specifically Psychoanalysis. Director David Cronenberg (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) has long been obsessed with the human condition and might be able to consider this his masterpiece.
One of the strengths of the film is that it states its purpose pretty much right from the beginning. We open in Zurich Switzerland in 1904 where Dr. Jung is welcoming Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a new patient to the mental institution. She is clearly disturbed, almost possessed and asks what Dr. Jung has planned for her. “We are here to talk,” he replies, a clear reference to the film’s subject.
Although Jung is newly married and starting a family, his primary focus is on helping Sabina. He helps her explore her childhood and other factors that lead her to her current situation. He tries to help her figure out how she got to where she is. Freud’s influence on Jung is obvious as Jung pays a lot of attention to Sabina’s childhood trauma and things that may have stunted her psychosexual development.
One of the great things about Jung though was that he wasn’t just concerned with where a person came from, but he was also concerned with where they were going (Individuation). At some point in the process of their treatments Jung asks Sabina who/what she would like to be. She admits to wanting to be a doctor. She becomes Jung’s apprentice and assists him with experiments (like word association with Jung’s wife) and interpreting the findings.
Keep in mind that this was the formative years for Psychology as a recognized profession and the rules and codes of conduct surrounding doctor and patient had not been formed. That is one of the most fascinating aspects about this film, that these lines are consistently crossed amongst varying levels of relationships.
Speaking of relationships, in 1907 Jung traveled to Vienna to meet his idol, Freud (whom Jung compared to Galileo). Their initial meeting lasted for approximately 13 hours. Freud was cold, arrogant and extremely rigid in his opinions. Jung relayed details about his patient, Sabina to Freud, such as a childhood memory of Sabina’s father spanking her and her liking it. Freud diagnosed her as being stuck in her anal phase and as being detail oriented and meticulous and orderly. Jung explained that none of those described Sabina but Freud just puffed on his cigar and sluffed it off. It is no coincidence that Freud developed the repression school of psychological thought! Their meeting clearly illustrated that Freud was the past and the present of Psychology but Jung was the future.
Cronenberg did an excellent job of showing the differences between Freud and Jung. Freud, in personality and in his theories was extremely stagnant and focused on maintaining the status quo of what HE believed to be true. Jung was much more forward thinking and constantly looking for ways to grow the field of Psychology. Freud even admitted to Jung that he was hesitant to share a dream he had with Jung out of fear it would diminish him (Freud) in his eyes (Jung). Freud had no problems whatsoever though interpreting a dream that Jung had shared with him.
Back in Zurich Jung takes on a new patient, Dr. Otto Gross, a disciple of Freud’s at the request of Freud. Otto is a raging nymphomaniac and anarchist. Otto and Jung agree it is their job as therapists to get their patients to “freedom.” Jung explains his situation with Sabina and Otto encourages him to not just stare at the oasis, but to drink from it.
For Jung this is not so simple. First of all, Jung is married. Secondly, Sabina is his patient. Sabina reveals to Jung that she realizes a lot of her issues are sexual but she has no experience with sex. Without getting into too much detail here, the lines that were already slightly blurry at best get extremely blurry.
It is interesting to note though that the relationship between Sabina and Jung, although extremely inappropriate at times, helped each person become who they needed to be, it unlocked each of their own potential. Also Jungs relationship with Freud started off as pupil and apprentice but ended up in disappointment and distance.
Jung struggles and grows. Sabina struggles and grows. Freud struggles yet does not grow, holding rigidly to his ideas and never really evolving them. That is part of the brilliance of this film because Psychoanalysis is all about struggle and growth.
Knightley’s performance as an extremely troubled mental patient is breath-taking. Her facial expressions, her body language expressed a tortured pain that at times was almost too realistic. Michael Fassbender continued his string of brilliant performances (Inglourious Basterds: X-Men: First Class) in bringing Carl Jung to life. The character of Freud was strong and historically accurate but that has less to do with Mortensen’s acting and more to do with screenplay writer Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons). Apparently Christoph Waltz was set to play Freud but due to scheduling conflict was unable to. THAT would have been something!
This film is brilliant and excellent on many levels. It is a beautiful period piece, a wonderfully historically accurate accounting of the beginnings of the field of Psychology, specifically the Psychoanalysis moment and a true portrait of the human condition. This movie doesn’t necessarily have broad marketing appeal to a general audience, probably more of the art house theater crowd but for those who are fortunate enough to see it, it is quite a treat.