David Cronenberg is no stranger to the dark recesses of the human mind – his films invariably probe human nature at its most perverse and nihilistic – and as such he is perhaps better equipped than most to tackle the subject of the fragile relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud at the turn of the twentieth century.
Given the complexity of their theories and the details of the rift which developed between these two giants of psychology, it is to be expected that many details would have to be excised in order to fit comfortably into a feature film, and A Dangerous Method, while in some ways superficial, succeeds in throwing around plenty of ideas about sexual drives in the context of early psychoanalysis without getting bogged down by heavy-handed dialogue.
The narrative revolves around the unbalanced Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley, considerably less annoying than in many other roles), a seemingly incurable patient taken on by Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), who breaks the ethics of his profession and enters into a sexual relationship with her characterized by her masochistic desires. This change in his character is foreshadowed in scenes where Jung meets anarchic Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel in a small but noteworthy role), a man who believes everything is permissible and encourages everyone to unleash their desires regardless of any negative consequences (Jung credited Gross with explaining the introverted/extraverted psychological types, defining them as “inferiority with shallow consciousness” and “inferiority with contracted consciousness”).
Freud (played by Cronenberg regular Viggo Mortensen) plays a lesser role in terms of screen time, but as the “grandfather of psychoanalysis” his impact is fundamental in bringing to the surface the sexual neurosis driving Jung’s elicit affair with Spielrein, just as the ménage à trois acts upon her development towards becoming one of the first female psychoanalysts. It’s a strange display of intellectual mind-games played out simultaneously with a cool and arrogant detachment and ego-driven professional pride.
That A Dangerous Method, with its emphasis on the sexual relationship between Jung and Spielrein, focuses somewhat on Freudian notions of sexual desire, is unsurprising, what it lacks is a strong articulation of Jung’s developing theories. Aside from the odd reference to the paranormal (Freud cautioned that man should harden themselves against superstition) and a growing mistrust of an exclusively mechanistic approach to analysis, there is little explication of Jung’s concepts which so rankled with Freud. That said, these ideas were in their genesis at the time the film is set, when Jung’s rejection of Freudian sexual theory was more concrete than his own alternative theories.
Cronenberg is renowned as a director who likes to shock, and A Dangerous Method is something of a continuation in his move away from the darker material which characterized his earlier work towards films with greater intellectual depth. It may well be a “costume drama”, but it is one which reflects the sexual taboos of the era (complete with titillating spanking sessions) while also dealing with the contributions to human thought from two of the most talked about intellectuals of recent times with considerable maturity.