CARL Jung, the great Swiss psychologist, is credited with inventing the free association test, the famous question-andanswer word game used in psychiatric analysis. We are given a demonstration in A Dangerous Method. The average moviegoer, submitting to such a test, might come up with the following responses: David Cronenberg? Seriously weird pictures. Keira Knightley? Pirates of the Caribbean. Sigmund Freud? Dirty old man. Super-ego? Typical Hollywood producer. Keira Knightley? That nice girl from Pride and Prejudice.
All of which might have led Jung to conclude that Cronenberg, famous for his studies of hallucination and mental derangement, had made one of his strangest and most beautiful films, with Knightley in one of her boldest and bravest roles. And Jung would have been right. Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, a disturbed Russian Jewish woman who is cured by Jung of a serious mental disorder. She went on to become his clinical assistant and later his mistress, eventually achieving recognition as a psychiatrist in her own right.
With a few more questions in his word game, Jung might even have been bold enough to predict acting Oscars for Knightley and the film’s other stars: Michael Fassbender for his brilliant portrayal of Jung, and Viggo Mortensen, no less compelling as Sigmund Freud, inventor of psychoanalysis, and Jung’s friend and mentor.
The source of this absorbing film is a play by Christopher Hampton, who adapted it for his screenplay; and while Jung’s defenders have questioned the accounts of his sexual liaison with Spielrein, there is plenty of evidence that the film is a true account of what happened.
Cronenberg, always fascinated by stories of eccentrics, mutants and mentally deranged characters, would have found the story irresistible. The gleeful schlock-horror of his early titles — Rabid, Shivers, The Brood — sprang from a dark and fevered obsession with aberrant life forms and the shaky boundary between objective and subjective experience. Who else would have attempted a film of Naked Lunch, William Burroughs’s horrific account of drug-induced nightmares, or Crash, J. G. Ballard’s dire speculation on carnal impulses in the age of the machine?
Many of Cronenberg’s films play like psychiatric case studies, and in Nightbreed he played a psychiatrist: a villain who convinces one of his patients that he’s responsible for killings committed by Cronenberg’s own character. Spider (2003), his finest and most compassionate portrayal of a psychotic personality, was the story of a tormented wreck of a man played with marvellous sensitivity by Ralph Fiennes.
Cronenberg’s sympathies are again with the diseased and damaged soul in A Dangerous Method. And throughout the film we are given pointed reminders of the gulf between the sufferings of poor Sabina and the serene world of clinical detachment in which Jung and his collaborators ponder the mysteries of the mind.
Even in its most distressing moments, the film has a certain pristine elegance. Burgholzi, the asylum in Zurich where Spielrein is first brought for treatment in 1904, is a place of spacious corridors and vast rolling lawns. Where, we wonder, are the other patients? Jung can find refuge from the horrors of his clinical practice in the peace of an ordered domestic life and the pleasures of his sailing boat, a luxury few of his patients could afford. And whenever he confers with Freud, or seeks his advice, the two can be seen strolling in some formal garden, complete with clipped hedges and sparkling fountains.
Our first encounter with Knightley is little short of terrifying. Convulsive and hysterical, she is dragged to Jung’s consulting room, incapable of coherent speech and thrusting out her jaw in a way that suggests some imminent dislocation of her facial structure. Under analysis, it emerges that she was regularly beaten by her father, an experience she found sexually arousing. Jung’s response is sympathetic but unforgivable. He seeks to purge Sabina’s guilt by administering his own thrashings with a leather belt.
These scenes are protracted and distressing, but never prurient. And whether such a dangerous method of treatment was a cause of Sabina’s recovery — or whether it happened at all — we can only speculate. Certainly the straitlaced Freud took a dim view of it, and of the love affair between Jung and Sabina that followed. Jung’s wife Emma (Sarah Gadon), who looks sad enough to be another of her husband’s patients, seems largely indifferent to Jung’s carryingon. Her sole ambition as a wife is to present him with a male heir.
We last saw Fassbender in Shame, dealing with a serious psycho-sexual problem of his own. As Jung he gives us a dazzling study of frosty, anal-retentive rectitude, a good and thoughtful man whose contact with the real world of pain and suffering is bound by sterile theory. The contrast with Mortensen is striking. This is his third collaboration with Cronenberg (after A History of Violence and Eastern Promises) and his most convincing. Though Freud has a smaller role than Jung, he projects a deeper wisdom and a bluff humanity, all the more touching when we remember much of his psychoanalytic theory would in time be forgotten or discredited.
Jung was the first of Freud’s disciples to question his emphasis on sex as the key to all psychic disorder, and it led to a lasting rift between them. At the end of the film Jung is left pondering the carnage of war, presumably asking himself how all the new-found arts of psychiatry were powerless to prevent an outbreak of collective insanity on a global scale. When Hitler banned the practice of psychoanalysis, Freud was driven into exile by the Nazis and died in London in 1939.
Spielrein was less fortunate. She was rounded up with her family and shot by the SS in 1942. The Holocaust — as Cronenberg seems to be saying — was another dangerous method, the most dangerous of all, driven by incurable psychopaths with insane theories of their own.
Keira Knightley is patient and mistress to Michael Fassbender’s Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method