Mind games

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.