For a better experience on MUBI, update your browser.

Review: David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method”

David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method tackles Jung, Freud and psychosexual frontiers with a supreme, stately restraint.
A Dangerous Method

This new phase of David Cronenberg’s films—I’m speaking of the move to a certain kind of classicism of A History of Violence and Eastern Promises—has taken an even more extreme and interesting turn in A Dangerous Method. The film shocks with its sheer stateliness, its almost quiet abstraction of tumultuous melodrama. This superficially lurid tale of psyscho-sexual obsession between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and a patient (Keira Knightley), and the more subtle love affair between Jung and his father figure Freud (Viggo Mortensen) is restrained to such a point that only in moments of precisely dictated situations—in a “talking cure” session or in the middle of sex—are surface tensions broken and exclamations made.  Otherwise, the film is forever setting the table for an engagement (with Freud) or a game (with the patient), keeping everything on the surface, only for us to realize, through ellipses, that these have already been played, victories and tragedies have all occurred but on the edges of what we’ve seen, of what’s been filmed.

The stakes between these three in their bets of real and theoretical psychologies and attractions are exceedingly murky, the specifics of contentions and disputes professional and personal a matter of history rather than cinema, yet the mise-en-scène is clean, spare and unsparing, essential.  We get total visual lucidity charting, on the surface, underground battles.  (So I wonder: does this film have a subconscious?)

Battles and psychosexual sound like active descriptors, but A Dangerous Method has no atmosphere of pleasure or danger as Jung navigates between bourgeois infidelity, the mind and body of his patient, and Freud’s thoughts and affection—it is all witheld from the film in favor of crisp whites, uncluttered compositions, only cleanness and spareness, assured persons firm and stable in their time and place of this period picture.  The focus of every composition, often split across shared space in deep focus shots, are the physical presences of these people, how you are always aware of Fassbender’s face, always trying to figure its handsome, incomplete shape, Knightley’s angular, wretched skinniness, used so well in the film, and Mortensen’s fierce tranquility.  It is a movie of actors, personages, all poised, stately—and supremely melancholy. Sad, perhaps, that all that drives and defines them remains on the inside while society, and them a part of it, continues its inevitable course of surfaces; and the trio work, in a way unaware, at determining a way to color the world with what's being restrained.

This review originally appeared in our coverage for the 2011 Venice Film Festival. 

Jung and Freud Love Triangle – The Dangerous Method On this highly controversial play and film about the emerging talents of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud in their pursuit of unconscious meaning and therapy through the psychoanalytic processes. many who have seen the film think it untypical of Cronenberg. Read this and get another perspective, which might explain why. Jung was a highly complex man and any attempt to simplify his experience will inevitably deliver the interpolating agency into the hands of the opposites. We will see this film and observe the persona of a young and ambitious physician in the process of becoming world famous, but it is only half the story. There are two Jungs and it is inevitable that any contemporary exposition about the younger Jung, for the sake of completeness, will have to glimpse into the future of this unusual man’s life and portray the older Jung, the evolution of which, really did not blossom until he had withdrawn his Old Wise Man archetypal projection from Freud. To begin to understand this second Jung, we must first look at The Red Book. It is Jung’s mystery and his myth, (at least up until his embolism in 1944, when, according to his account, his soul entered the repository anew). This book is a mystical confession of the unconscious that is so obscure in its mythological origins that Jung suppressed its publication completely, for fear it would undermine his credibility as a physician and scientist. Jung’s unprecedented confrontation with the unconscious, as is detailed by the Red Book, cast a completely different picture of the man from his public persona, as it details his work with the raw psychical objects, not only of his own personal Shadow Complex, but also with The Objective Shadow Complex. Later contemporaries talked about Jung’s charisma. Jung would have used the term: manna personality. This manna is the numinous effect of Jung’s plunge into the depths of the unconscious and it would be wise for us to bear this in mind when we observe the portrayal of Jung in the film. Any relations that Jung undertook prior to his integration of the psychical objects of the Red Book would inevitably have been laden with these latent contents. Only those that have trod this path would know of the intensity these unconscious objects would cast upon personal relations. Jung’s susceptibility therefore to particular relations with female patients could be explained in terms of a highly dynamic Anima transference. No less is his relation with Freud, where Jung’s Old Wise Man archetypal complex would have also have been involved in the highly intense transference that inevitably arose between these two giants. That a woman patient formed an apex to a triangular relation between these men should be no surprise to anyone who has practised psychotherapy, or has insight into the ways of the soul. We should also not overlook the stature of the woman involved and some of the remarkable things she achieved. To write these relations off as sexual dalliance is prurient nonsense, these people were working at the boundaries of the unconscious, where morality is found side by side with its opposite. Jung, even then in his life, was not about exclusion, modern correctness or repression. He made mistakes and he paid the price for it, but ultimately he was an exponent of the integrated soul and under those circumstances, as he was soon to become aware, anything could happen. We should therefore bear in mind that it was not only Jung’s undoubted therapeutic skill that effected so many of his cures, it was also his numinous capacity as a healer. This is an unknown land for those caught within the thought and language of modern therapeutic medicine, but for those involved in the dangerous method, (as the playwright chooses to call it); it is the only way forward. Analysis involves absolute commitment from the analyst to the patient – it ties the participants together as no other bond can, transcending family and friendship in the most honest exchange that man can achieve, except with the daemon of his own mythology. Jung described the process as a transference that should be as challenging to the analyst as to the patient. There are no safety nets in real life, and it is an illusion for people to think otherwise. Despite all the propaganda, peddled by the state and the media to the contrary, the world remains an unpredictable and dangerous place. This condition of mankind, the will of God apart, is precipitated by the state of man’s own unconsciousness. Jung set out to remedy this for those individuals that were directed into his path with the greatest of sincerity and integrity possible. It is almost impossible for contemporary people to understand the implication of Jung’s life and work, for he not only knew the secrets of the soul, he also came to know the secrets of the Gods. Jung stands out head and shoulders in this department of reality and alone was able to relativise God into a function of the same reality we all share. He saw the godhead in a dimension of reality like unto to the wind, the rain and the stars under which we all dwell. Jung described God as psychical phenomenology, a phrase that will ring out for generations yet to come, if not for this. And so, with this timely film, we must rely on the power of the unconscious to guide the intuition of Cronenberg and his actors to deliver a viable record, perhaps despite themselves. It will be wrapped up in a modern perspective, it is after all an exposition of man’s unfolding myth, but the one thing that is certain, and Jung knew this more than anyone, is that the Mercurius Duplex archetype will have its way with any artist or film-maker treading upon this ground, just as it does with all human lives. Jung’s mythological personality foresaw our current disasters, just as it anticipated the sea of blood that engulfed Europe during the 1914-18 World War and if we look to the turmoil that has surrounded human experience on our planet since 9/11, where war, famine and disaster strike almost every month, it is clear that Jung’s latter-day invocation in his book Answer To Job, about the eleventh sign: ‘Aquarius sets aflame Lucifer’s harsh forces’, should not be disregarded as a program for human life, now and into the future – or at least while mankind is in transition to a more conscious and spiritual state. Something, Jung wished and eternally strove for all his life. R.C 5.12.2012 by Georgia Xanthopoulou Based on a stage play which was based, in its turn, on a book by John Kerr, A Dangerous Method is about the relationship a young Carl Jung develops with a troubled patient as well as the beginning and break-up of his friendship with Sigmund Freud. Most importantly, the film concerns itself with the events that probably caused the breakdown he suffered during World War I and the battle within himself as his values as a responsible physician clashed with his carnal desires. The film starts off quite rough. For those who may be frightened by the beginning of the film, I assure you it gets better. Keira Knightley doesn’t spend the entire time talking and dislocating her jaw like this. Even though she keeps the weird accent she’s supposedly Russian in the film and irritating way of acting. Knightley’s character, Sabina, is admitted in the hospital where Jung, portrayed by Michael Fassbender, is working. He starts treating her, in the beginning without her cooperation, but soon she starts to get much better. His approach to her treatment is ‘the talking cure’, a method Sigmund Viggo Mortensen Freud has come up whom, the audience soon finds out, Jung greatly admires. The two men first meet in order to discuss matters of their field as well as Sabina’s case and they grow very fond of each other. Jung goes to become Freud’s protégé, whom he trusts with the treatment of another doctor, Otto Gross, a sex and drug addict. So far so good. This first part of the film establishes Jung as a serious and trustworthy professional, as Sabina is transformed, with his help, from a wild animal to calm, eloquent woman. The admiration between the two great psychiatrists also helps render Jung as a man who takes his profession seriously and who has a lot to offer the field. And then the tables are turned and the film starts getting interesting. As Sabina starts getting better, it becomes clear that Jung has some soul searching to do as well. In the same way that Sabina gets better not by changing her ways but, simply, by accepting them, Jung must accept some difficult truths about himself as well. In fact, the whole film seems to imply that only by bringing our suppressed urges and desires to the surface we can live happy lives. The two characters who seem to serve as catalysts for Jung’s painful discoveries are Sabina and Otto, Vincent Cassel’s character. On the one hand, Cassel’s character is portrayed as kind of mad, but also as absolutely free from any notion that society engraves on people about what is right and what is wrong. On the other hand, the more Sabina becomes self-assured and, the more Jung discovers his darker side. Sabina becomes a highly respected academic and psychiatrist and is ultimately respected by both the men of the story. While Jung is afraid of what her tales can cause him, she reacts boldly but respectably, never losing face. Paralleling Sabina’s progress is the downfall, in one way or another, of Freud and Jung. While Freud is seen by everyone as outdated and too old to be able to bring something new to the table of psychoanalysis, Jung has to face his own suppressed desires and accept that they are a part of him. While Freud fades away, becomes more closed-minded about the direction psychoanalysis should go towards, Jung discovers he is closer to Otto than he thought, as his initial views on monogamy and the need to suppress sexual desires in order to be considered morally sound are overturned. The breakdown of Jung, as well as the notion that Freud’s sex-obsessed theories derived from his own rigid views when it came to sex is, probably, the most compelling aspect of the film. When these character arcs are combined with Sabina’s course-the patient who, by the end, has surpassed both the men in terms of peace of mind and, perhaps, career, what you get is a call for men and women to move forward, express themselves freely, with no prejudice. Most importantly, it‘s about the lesson all characters learn that one needs to truly know themselves and, however difficult, free themselves of unnecessary social constraints in order to have a chance at a meaningful life. Georgia Xanthopoulou at

Please to add a new comment.

Previous Features