David Cronenberg is no stranger to exploring how people undo themselves by venturing into the boundaries of human sexuality. In A DANGEROUS METHOD, though, he delves into the historical figures who helped set those boundaries, and creates a drama where intellect and science are pitted against human passion and sexual politics.
The story — as adapted by screenwriter Christopher Hampton from his stage play, The Talking Cure, which in turn was based on John Kerr’s book, A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein — spins off the actual relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), one of the fathers (and we use that term guardedly) of modern psychoanalysis, and Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a young woman who starts out as the doctor’s patient and eventually becomes his colleague and, as rumor has it, mistress. As Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson) is drawn into their orbits, the film becomes an intelligent and moving tale of people striving for the betterment of humanity, frequently against the pull of their own frailties.
Click here to hear my interview with Christopher Hampton.
It’s a play!
Ohh ok, that explains all the talking.
Now if someone can just explain Knightley’s grating performance…
The movie’s credits make it clear it was based on a play.
And Knightley’s performance is a pretty good one. If it is grating it is because that is the kind of character she is playing.
I just saw this, and I’m surprised by the lack of discussion for this film, especially from Cronenberg fans. At the very least, I think the film is interesting for the light it might shed on Cronenberg as an auteur as well as his oeuvre. Certainly, I’d like to see more people share some of their insights about the film.
I haven’t really processed the film, and I think there’s a lot to process, at least in terms of the ideas, but here are some thoughts and questions off the top of my head:
>I’m wondering about the importance of knowing about the actual people and events the film covers. I feel like that knowledge would have helped me understand and appreciate the film a lot more. I have a very basic and crude understanding of Freud and Jung’s ideas—and even less information about their relationships with Sabina Spielrien. If there is any background information that people think are important, I’d be interested in hearing it.
>In what ways does the film alter, if at all, our understanding of Cronenberg and his films? In what ways does knowledge of Cronenberg and his films affect one’s understanding of this film?
>There seems to be several layers and ideas in the film, and I’m having trouble sorting them out and separating the key ideas from the less important ones. Off the top of my head, there seems to be the tension of the opposites and the way that something new comes out of the conflict and/or synthesis of opposites; there’s the tension between father-son, male-female, religion-science, pragmatism-idealism. Am I’m missing anything?
At the same time, the film seems to want to function as a love story and maybe even a bio-pic. I’m not sure if the film works on all these levels, though.
“It’s a play!”
According to Cronenberg, it was a screenplay that went unproduced, so Hampton then rewrote it as a stage play.
“Now if someone can just explain Knightley’s grating performance…”
“There’s actually film footage of hysterical patients, so Keira and I, we discussed in detail how far we would go with those opening scenes. I know some people think that they’re extreme, but in fact, they’re very subdued compared with what these patients really did. I mean, they were really acting out, in a way. It was sort of psychological theater for them. These women were trying to express things that they were not allowed to express if they were proper women, but if they were patients of hysteria, then they could express these things. So basically I said to Keira, “Really, this woman is trying to speak the unspeakable and she’s trying to say things that are hideous and repellant to her even to think, but she’s been encouraged to speak them, after all, it’s a talking cure.” I thought that most of her symptoms should be around the mouth and the difficulty of getting the words out, so that was our basic approach to her."
Kerr’s book is excellent, but for basic biography I recommend watching Elizabeth Marton’s documentary My Name Was Sabina Spielrein (available from Netflix). It gives you a bit more detail on Spielrein’s life and work, including her correspondences with both Jung and Freud.
“there’s the tension between father-son, male-female, religion-science, pragmatism-idealism. Am I’m missing anything?”
It seemed to me that their were strong elements of Jew (Spielrein, Freud) vs gentile (the Jungs) and class (the Jungs reaction to the Freud’s apartment, for example). Also Jung’s bourgeoisie sense of morality vs. the libertinism of Otto Gross.
Santino said, Now if someone can just explain Knightley’s grating performance…”
Cronenberg’s explanation seems credible, although, a part of me feels the performance comes from Cronenberg’s love for the grotesque—in this case, Knightly’s facial contortions expressing the ugly feelings within.
Thanks for the head’s up on the Marton film.
Good points—although with regard to Jung v. Gross dichotomy, I thought of terms civilization v. animal instincts ( or maybe unbridled carnality, barbarism, etc.). I like your word choice although “libertinism” seems a bit euphemistic; maybe civilized society vs. unbridled individualism? restraint v. hedonism? (His views made me think of Nietzsche.)
In any event, I think discussing positions on Jung v. Gross or Jung v. Freud (maybe Jung v. Spierlein? Jung v. his wife? the wife v. Spielein) would be interesting.
Let’s take Jung v. Gross. Gross’ position seems to advocate giving in completely to one’s sexual urges—that restraint of sexual gratification is the source of most problems. I can’t remember what he says specifically about monogamy, but he basically thinks it’s a useless, even harmful, idea. I believe he questions the reason people must or should be monogamous.
There is something definitely appealing about his ideas—as they would, indeed, be liberating in a way. And I do agree that one can stifle and repress one’s sexual urges to the extent that is unhealthy and damaging. But why restrain one’s self to any degree?
Two quick responses from me:
1. Can one have trust and intimacy without monogamy? Perhaps, that’s possible for some and even possible for everyone if we somehow could undo centuries of conditioning and culture—but that’s probably a bigger can of worms that I’m prepared to take on.
2. Can we raise children up in a healthy way without monogamy? Again, the arguments for and against this are probably beyond my knowledge and experience, but I tend to think not.
Another question: what was the primary source of the conflict between Freud and Jung?
They differed in how to help patients as well as promote their ideas. Freud’s approach seemed to be tell people how things are—and don’t incorporate ideas and approaches that could discredit psychoanalysis. Jung seemed to want to go beyond telling people how things are and help them find a way to deal with that. (Can anyone clarify what he meant by “helping people become who they were meant to be?”)
But a power struggle and rivalry also seemed to be crucial to their disagreement.
“Good points—although with regard to Jung v. Gross dichotomy, I thought of terms civilization v. animal instincts ( or maybe unbridled carnality, barbarism, etc.). I like your word choice although “libertinism” seems a bit euphemistic; maybe civilized society vs. unbridled individualism? restraint v. hedonism? (His views made me think of Nietzsche.)”
Yeah, I struggled with how to word that particular opposition, as it seems to me there are several different aspects that could be described. Anarchist is another term that certainly could be applied to Gross. (and, yes, Gross was influenced by Nietzsche, as well as Max Stirner).
“what was the primary source of the conflict between Freud and Jung?”
Are you asking for a Freudian reading of the conflict or a Jungian one? (just kidding).
There were clear ideological differences that developed in the latter years of their association—Freud disapproved of Jung’s interest in mysticism, Jung disapproved of Freud’s emphasis on the libido. Whether or not this was really the primary cause of their falling out is debatable. Clearly Freud had seen Jung as the handpicked heir to his legacy at some point (especially after Freud had had not dissimilar falling outs with Alfred Adler and Wilhelm Stekel (who are not mentioned in the film). There was also a sort of general cultural and professional tension between two of the major “school” of psychoanalytic theory, the Viennese (and mostly Jewish) psychoanalysts and the Swiss (mostly Gentile) psychiatrists. So yes, there was absolutely some aspect of a power struggle and personal rivalry between the two men. At the most basic level, I think you could describe Freud (late Freud, at least) as a pessimist, while Jung was essentially an optimist. Freud basically seemed to end up thinking that the only hope was for culture to develop to the point that it could somehow save people from their own instinctual drive toward aggression and self-destruction, while Jung talks about what he calls a process of individualization, a sort of open-ended personal psychological development.
There were clear ideological differences that developed in the latter years of their association—Freud disapproved of Jung’s interest in mysticism, Jung disapproved of Freud’s emphasis on the libido.
I’m of two minds (no pun intended) on this. I sympathize with Freud’s disapproval of mysticism and the paranormal because it would discredit his/their theory. On the other hand, I side with Jung on Freud’s boiling everything down to sex. Freud seems off the mark on that point (although I got the sense that he took this approach because sex seemed to be the more “scientific” explanation for the most psychological problems).
Freud basically seemed to end up thinking that the only hope was for culture to develop to the point that it could somehow save people from their own instinctual drive toward aggression and self-destruction, while Jung talks about what he calls a process of individualization, a sort of open-ended personal psychological development.
I’m not familiar with Jung’s concept of “individualization,” but they don’t sound mutually exclusive. FWIW, if you rule out spiritual factors/God, I’d be more pessimistic.
(what Spielein herself believed was actually really fascination too, and quite influential on Freud later writings (and Jung’s too, to a certain extent, but unfortunately the film barely touches upon her work).
Does the film you mentioned do a good job of covering her ideas?
Yeah, the doc does a pretty good job of laying out some of her basic work, esp. the idea of “destruction as a cause of coming into being”:
there is an initial we-experience that is opposite to I-experience, and that is related to destruction of the ‘I’. At the same time, the destruction of the self and regression into we-experience has positive results, because it intensifies social development and cultural progress. She concludes that destruction is the basis of further development. In any dissociation, we can find a cause of becoming.
I liked the ideas on the necessity of destruction (although I didn’t feel like I could fully digest them during the film). Hopefully, I can get to the doc. Thanks again.
I finally saw this last night.
Some scattered thoughts…
In terms of positioning the 4 (or 5) major characters within the psychoanalytic constellation of the film:
Otto Gross – id
Carl Jung – ego
Sigmund Freud – super-ego
Sabina Spielrein (and also Emma Jung) – other
The positioning of the 3 male characters in this constellation is pretty straightforward and is in some ways not especially interesting. I sense that even Cronenberg himself wasn’t especially interested in the male characters of the story perhaps because of the way that they represent “the (dead) past” as opposed to the way that the two major female characters seem much more clearly pointing toward the future, if only in that they (especially Sabina) have very clear and powerful character development arcs, while the male characters kind of don’t really develop much.
Keira Knightley’s performance as Sabina is, IMHO, one of her best performances, and I think Cronenberg again shows himself to be a very strong director of actors in the Hitchcockian sense of using his actors as “cattle.”
I’ll explain a bit… I think it becomes clear when one compares this film to, say, Existenz, that Cronenberg essentially works with or “uses” his actors to generate performances that pretty much always have a “meta-” dimension to them. If a performance seems odd or stilted, it is because Cronenberg wants it to seem that way. If a performance feels rich and naturalistic, then that is what Cronenberg wanted to draw out. Everything in the film, and most prominently the actors’ performances, are there to serve the specific ideas that Cronenberg wishes to convey. One of the things that I’ve always appreciated about Cronenberg is that given the controversial and often even prurient subject matter he handles in his films, he works hard to make the films function at the level of “intellectual critique of” rather than “blind complicity with” the subject matter. The performances of his actors in their characters is integral to this critical perspective that the films point viewers toward. (One could even call it “Brechtian” if one were so inclined.)
In the present case Sabina is notably the only one of these characters who speaks with a true-to-character accent. So what is the purpose of that (it’s kind of distracting, right)? I think it is to set her apart (in case her “hysterical behavior” doesn’t do this sufficiently) specifically as a figure of the capital “O” Other for the film to revolve around. Thus even when she is “cured” she still stands distinctly apart because of this accent.
As something of a disciple of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (co-authors of the important post-Fredian work “Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophenia”), I personally find this film’s musings on the concepts of “being” versus “becoming” very interesting. As has long been a nit-picky complaint of mine with Cronenberg, I think he kind of introduces this idea without really bringing it to particularly rich fruition. But at least he’s still trying. Often Cronenberg’s films serve as kind of “jumping off points” for further exploration of certain ideas, instead of fully internally realized explorations of those ideas.
But that’s fine with me. I’ll jump off…
Here “being versus becoming” is laid out on a spectrum from Gross – being in it’s most raw form, and the one that “starves to death” (is that sad, funny, gross, or all of the above?); to Freud who we see portrayed as so ossified in his “state of being” that at one point he physically freezes up, collapses, and appears almost to die; to Jung who clearly grasps the notion of becoming, but – at least within the time frame of the film itself – seems not yet capable of moving becoming from intellectual concept to lived experience; and finally to Sabina who within the film clearly delineates the hard work of travelling the rough road of very real becoming. She is almost literally “dramatic concept of character development arc” as metaphorization of or allegory for “psychoanalytic/philosophical concept of becoming.”
I think one of the best of his works that addresses being versus becoming is still Videodrome, and in much the same way that Lynch has long been to an extent making the same movie over and over, I think Cronenberg keeps on making variations on this theme of being versus becoming. (see http://www.christianhubert.com/writings/being___becoming.html particularly the last few paragraphs that specifically reference Deleuze and Guattari).
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This structure makes for an…uncomfortable reductionism… to put it one way, and is easily my least favorite part of the film. I’d only add that the roles seem to shift depending on the relationship in question. Jung is always the ego, as he is the main character, but in his sexual relationships his wife is the super-ego and Sabina is the id. In his professional relationships, Freud is the superego and Gross is the id.
It’s interesting that even though Jung is the main character, the film structures his relationships exclusively through Jung’s orthodox theories on the unconscious. There is (to my recollection) no mention of the collective unconscious (or most of Jung’s and if there was the film used it as little more than background information (as it did with the one or two brief mentions of synchronicity and mysticism). I haven’t seen the play but given Croneberg’s filmography (clinical, always in control, few directors are more interested in the theory and mechanics of sex and less interested in the final product) it makes sense.
Also, I’m not a Keira Knightley fan but she nailed hysteria.
“This structure makes for an…uncomfortable reductionism… to put it one way, and is easily my least favorite part of the film.”
Oh yeah. I don’t think it’s a very good idea to try to read this movie with psychoanalytic analogies, especially one-to-one metaphor. It’s much too busy for that, regarding what Jazz and Matt have pointed out about the other levels of power being played with here (Jew and Gentile, class, hedonism, etc.)
“There is (to my recollection) no mention of the collective unconscious”
Though there’s a good argument that the blurred vignette falloff in many of the early sequences of background/foreground positioning of the characters creates a recognizable visual ‘collective conscious’ that then gets broken down, if that helps any. But this movie is so focused on three specific characters (with only, really, Jung’s wife and Otto Gross showing up as the sole supporting characters) that it’s not ‘big’ enough in a sense to contain a collective unconscious. The underlying unconscious struggle going on in this movie is all about power.
Re: collective unconscious
The film really only goes up to around 1912-13, when there was at the theoretical rupture between Jung and Freud and the personal/professional rupture between Jung and Spielrein. Jung didn’t really begin, to my recollection, to articulate the ideas of “collective unconscious”, “active imagination,” and others that are most typically thought of as Jungian psychology until sometime after this, following a sort of psychological crisis and prolonged period of personal isolation beginning in 1913 which Jung called a “confrontation with the unconscious” (something that’s very clearly being alluded to at the end of the film when Cronenberg shows an extremely rigid Jung seated alone lakeside).
And hinted at before that when he is visiting Freud and startles him by talking of “knowing” of the creaks in the wood before they happen.
This is a movie where sometimes one line of dialog has to stand in for an entire section of the person’s work, I think. I’m actually not all that well read on Jung and Freud (and literally never heard of Spielrein and Gross until this came out, for which many commentators have indicated I am obviously an undereducated ignoramus), but I think it was all presented in a way where the overall importance and the depth of the theory are made reasonably clear and you can still enjoy the drama if you have the patience. I’m sure reading it yourself would make this movie more enlightening.
Freud has always interested me more as a person than a theorist and I love how his calculated detached manner as power play reveals that old yarn about “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Whether accurate or not the current feeling around Freud is that he is one who projected his own juju onto others behind a strongly structured lattice of theory, that Freud is the most Freudian patient of all. That feeling, as Nightshift has shown in the ‘most ridiculous Freudian readings’ thread, is really simplistic but there is something fascinating about how quickly I think people turn on to the underlying power impulses of Freudian text. My mother, for instance, immediately struggled with the placement of so many anxieties around the mother as a highly intellectualized variant of the basic, “It’s the mother’s fault if the child isn’t raised appropriately” hegemony, but she grew up very sensitive to those issues and again I haven’t read it so I don’t know how simplistic it may be. As this movie presents it, Freud is very ‘father figure’, even to Spielrein even though to my recollection you never see her and him in the same frame (or even room?). In fact, you never see Freud and Otto Gross together too. Freud sort of ties these three other characters (Jung) together as this Fatherhead, the bookends of all their texts. It’s a disturbing structure Cronenberg creates and the best part is how Freud is performed by Mortensen to be that almost evilly repressive but momentum-killing detachment entity.
“Freud is the most Freudian patient of all.”
Yes, although this was something he was very much aware of and discussed at length in his letters.
But, yeah, in a simpy sense, psychoanalysis as a practice quickly became “Oedipal” fairly quickly, with “sons” Jung and Adler dissenting and leaving home (and in fact Adler, though not really present in the film, focused his version of psychotherapy much more explicitly of power dynamics).
I’ll keep my comments on Knightley and her performance.
I felt the physicality of her work was impressive, the emotional pain was evident, the strain to articulate her thoughts was difficult watch and came across as honest. Her line were very strong, with the volume and speed of the words coming out of her mouth — when she was finally able to get the words out — speaks truthfully to her mental situation, one is not concerned with modulation when just battling to get the words into the air.
The manic turns were also honest.
I feel that people who cannot appreciate her work here are too lost in the name of the actress and fail to see the character.
^Agreed. Though you needn’t go as far as A Dangerous Method to discover that all Knightley needs is a director who cares about having her perform to get a performance. The Jacket was a pretty good one from her (all in all the movie is a Soderberg average) and I hear good things from Joe Wright’s direction of her in his first two movies.
Never Let Me Go was my favorite film of 10, and while Knightley wasn’t as strong as Garfield or Mulligan, she showed that she could play in that field. She can only get better. The best way to get better is to choose stronger scripts and endeavor to work with better directors.