Film review of A Dangerous Method

May 14, 2012

The following review of A Dangerous Method appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 13 April 2012.

Directed by David Cronenberg

Written by Christopher Hampton, based on his stage play The Talking Cure

Starring Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen, Keira Knightly, Vincent Cassel and Sarah Gadon

The new film “A Dangerous Method” opens in August 1904 with a horse-drawn carriage bringing a kicking and screaming young woman to the Burgholzli psychiatric hospital in Zurich.  The young woman is eighteen-year old Russian-Jewish Sabina Spielrein (played by Keira Knightly), who has been sent there by her family, desperate for a cure to her psychosis.  Sabina comes under the guidance of a young psychoanalyst named Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), a disciple of Sigmund Freud. Jung’s “talk therapy” approach works for her – so well, that she eventually decides to become a psychiatrist herself.

Based on real events and characters, four of the five major characters in this film are (or become) psychoanalysts:  Jung, Speilrein, Freud (an important father figure for Jung) and Otto Gross (played by French actor Vincent Cassel).  Gross was possibly the most famous early twentieth century advocate of “free love” and had a documented major impact on Jung – even though it was Jung who was supposed to be treating Gross.  The fifth character is Jung’s silently suffering – and very beautiful – wife Emma (Sarah Gadon).

Two of the psychoanalysts are also Jewish, an important theme of this film.  Freud (brilliantly acted by Viggo Mortensen) is acutely aware of how psychoanalysis is seen as a “Jewish” field, in contrast to Jung, the Protestant “Aryan” who appears to be blissfully unaware of the prejudice against Jews.  As a result, Freud wants to maintain the scientific validity of his work, with Jung wanting to move into areas of spirituality that Freud angrily rejects.

Jung had a very complicated relationship with Jews, with the film implying that he not-so-secretly lusted after Jewish women:  reportedly influenced by the polygamous ideas of Gross, Jung’s first affair was with Spielrein, and the final scene suggests that he continued that pattern.  Here director Jewish Canadian director David Cronenberg allows himself a bit of MA15+ fun, showing Jung and Spielrein in a sadomasochistic relationship. (Of course, the film ends well before the Nazi period, when many of Jung’s actions were seen as supporting the Nazis.)

Many have described this film as an “intellectual ménage a trois” between Freud, Jung and Spielrein: effectively the film charts the growth and decline of Jung’s relationships with each of them. For those interested in the history of psychoanalysis or of German-Jewish history, the film is a treat.  The film is talky, befitting its stage origins (a play by Christopher Hampton) and subject matter: the dialogue is clever and what happens inside the characters heads is equally if not more important than what is happening outside them.  Cronenberg is an actor’s director, and Mortensen (a frequent collaborator) gives an understated but powerful, sympathetic and totally convincing performance as Freud.  Knightly and Fassbender are the big name stars in “A Dangerous Method”, but Mortensen (who was nominated for a Golden Globe) is the one actor who fully achieves the internal dialogue which writer Hampton and director Cronenberg want to show.

The simple black and white slides at the end of the film which summarise what happens to each character provide a chilling and insightful coda to the turbulent historical times in which they lived: Gross dies of starvation in Berlin just after the First World War, Freud dies of cancer in London in 1939 and Spielrein – who had moved back to her native Russia – is killed by the Nazis in 1941.  And Jung?  He lives much longer – until 1961, a man whose influence steadily grows as the new century unfolds.

View the trailer for this film below: