When I was younger, I thought I was related to Sigmund Freud. A black and white picture of the father of psychoanalysis sat perched in our living room for as long as I can remember, so I always assumed he was some relative. I am not sure at what age I realized this was not the case, but I’m sure the confusion would be a nice anecdote in my unwritten memoirs. As the granddaughter of the psychiatrist, Dr. Brandt Steele, and the daughter of a psychiatrist and a clinical social worker, much of my formative years and opinions were shaped by the psychiatric discussions and thought that surrounded me; I could point out a typical anxiety dream from a very young age.
In turn, A Dangerous Method traces the formative years of psychiatry and is filled with philosophical discussions that would long shape the field, but the film is made poignant by the confusions and missteps the main characters bring to life. What struck me most about David Cronenberg’s new film was how it seemed like a Wild West of Psychiatry, and I believe it seemed that way because it was. The field was new, as were the methods, and especially in the depiction of Jung, the doctors seemed to be struggling to treat themselves as much as their patients. The film centers on the mentor relationship between Freud, played by Viggo Mortensen, and the younger heir apparent, Carl Jung, played by the currently ever-present Michael Fassbender, and Jung’s relationship with his patient, then lover, then colleague, Sabina Spielrein, played by Keira Knightley. If you’ve not taken Ms. Knightley seriously as actress based on her roles in The Pirates of The Caribbean franchise, you are sorely missing out. For me, Ms. Knightley’s turn in The Duchess and now A Dangerous Method prove that she does not merely look good in period costume, but that she has the capabilities to portray the women of the time, who look proper and were often limited in their choices, but who have much deeper desires and limitless nuances burning below the surface. Isn’t that the human condition as a whole, the film asks? What do we repress in order to live in an ordered society, and how does the resulting repression play havoc on our psyches?
In A Dangerous Method, we first find Spielrein in a bout of hysteria, resembling more wild animal than well-bred Russian daughter, and Ms. Knightly is in full possession of her character much as her character is possessed with anxiety, inner demons, and confusion. While she recovers from her hysteria, she manages to be at once both composed and prone to do or say anything at any time. One could argue that her character is the most emotionally and intellectually free of all the three main characters, and Ms. Knightely captures this essence. I think it has been pointed out that she might be overplaying at the beginning of the film, but that misses the point; we are animals, which we in many ways have to repress in favor of a functioning, ordered society.
As Freud, one of the first minds to try to understand our natures from a psychoanalytical perspective, reduces everything to sexuality, the film goes on to explore the increasingly sexual relationship between Spielrein and Jung. While it is absolutely unforgivable in this day and age for a doctor to sleep with a patient, and for good reason, it is so incredibly forgivable in the film, for Spielrein not only allows Jung to find a freedom in himself, she turns out to be a great psychiatric mind herself. As Spielrein and Jung go on to to have increasingly masochistic sex, you almost feel as if they are discovering masochistic sex for the first time in human history.
While Freud and Jung fall out by the film’s end based on Jung’s desires to explore more non-conventional scientific thought, which Freud fears will jeopardize the nascent field, the viewer is first treated to Jung’s descriptions of his dreams for Freud – and it’s fascinating to be in the inner sanctum of these great minds, to see their vulnerabilities, through their inner thoughts and personal relationship, as they continuously strive to understand the vulnerabilities in others.
The film is beautifully shot in Zurich and Austria, and Croenberg masterfully sets up shots that mirror the inner state of the character’s minds. I can’t get this shot of Jung and Spielrein in Jung’s sailboat out of my mind. Vincent Cassel also does a great turn as the psychiatrist, Otto Gross, who actually recommends sleeping with his patients and comes to be treated by Jung, only to end up having more of an effect on Jung. All the actors deserved nods for their portrayals, and it increasingly speaks ill of the Academy for failing to recognize truly great performances each year.
It’s a remarkable film that I highly recommend because it really makes one think, as the best art should. That it is a film about some of the great thinkers is such an added bonus. While the field of psychiatry has come a long way since The Talking Cure – the first name for psychotherapy and the name of the book upon which the film is based – was first proposed, psychiatry is still looked at rather dubiously by some who don’t trust it and also by a society that vilifies mental illness by refusing to understand it. The field may not be in its Wild West stages anymore, but each of our minds is our own personal Wild West, and A Dangerous Method will leave its viewers with much to explore about themselves and the human condition.
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