A Movie about Therapy?!?! We’re So There!

Alex: I loved David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. Adapted from two sources — Christopher Hampton’s play “The Talking Cure” and John Kerr’s nonfiction book “A Most Dangerous Method” — the movie is both a juicy melodrama full of sex and (emotional) violence and also a highly intelligent, and intellectual, dramatization of the friendship and ultimate rift between Freud and Jung. One of the qualities I really appreciate about it is that it gets the audience invested in the ongoing debate between the two men about modes of psychoanalysis. I can’t imagine pitching that to studio execs, but it’s a riveting element of this story.

At the heart of the drama is Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). The film opens with her, in hysterics, arriving at Jung’s clinic, and it ends with her leaving his clinic after having been his patient, student, mistress, spurned lover, and colleague. The journey this person must have taken boggles the mind — in the end she was killed by the Nazis — and Knightley’s performance is a journey of its own. At the start she’s physically and vocally contorted, having been driven mad by years of abuse. Later in the film, when Sabina has become a formidable therapist in her own right, Knightley gives us hints of the unhinged physicality of her character’s opening scenes whenever Jung (Michael Fassbender) says or does something hurtful. It’s a marvel to watch.

Fassbender and Viggo Mortenson, as Freud, are also terrific. The movie is a smorgasbord of great acting — I also really liked Sarah Gadon as Emma Jung — which I hope (fear?) means it’ll be embraced by the actor-heavy Academy. (Vincent Cassel also pops into the movie for about ten minutes, just long enough to carry the whole thing off with him when he departs.) They might otherwise be put off by the Cronenberg aesthetic. For me this movie is as merciless as any of the sci-fi/horror freakshows for which he’s famous (Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, eXistenZ). That he should make a movie that is overtly about psychotherapy feels right on the money to me; there’s always been an element of psychological curiosity and melancholy to his work. (Especially in my favorite movie of his, The Dead Zone.)

A Dangerous Method seems to find him in a calmer mode, but it’s no less relentless. There is only one act of physical violence in the movie (well…two if you count the sadomasochistic nature of Jung and Spielrein’s sexual relationship), but at all times these people are either deliberately hurting each other or trying to figure out how to hurt each other least.

I had never heard of Christopher Hampton’s play but I can imagine how all this material makes for an especially juicy stage melodrama. That said, the movie doesn’t feel at all “stage-y” (though I’m rarely bothered by movies that do have that quality). Hampton wrote the screenplay and one of the remarkable qualities about his and Cronenberg’s construction is that there is nary a dissolve or a montage. I kept expecting to see a melodically scored series of brief scenes, or shots, of Sabina undergoing therapy before finally being “cured.” But the movie refuses to speak that language. We aren’t told that time passes, we are simply placed in a scene that takes place, say, three months after the previous scene and are left to discover it for ourselves.

In other words, this movie doesn’t deal in visual metaphor, but rather metonym: what we see of Sabina’s therapy doesn’t represent the thing, it is the thing. We see a fully realized scene of a therapy session and that, then, tells us all we need to know about the entire therapy process, however many months it may last.

I saw it several hours before you, Aaron, and thought this quality of the movie would especially appeal to you — it’s highly Bazin-ian. (There are several other elements and images I thought would excite you too, but we’ll leave those to you and your shrink.) I was surprised when you texted me later to tell me you weren’t as enamored of the movie as I was. Would you like to tell our readers why…?

Aaron: Sure – I’d love to tell why I didn’t love it as much as you did. Very simply, you say, and I think Cronenberg asserts, that this is a film about “modes of psychoanalysis,” however I really don’t see it that way. I think it’s about Freud and his method and Jung is struggling to work within those rules (ultimately failing). The problem is that this really isn’t about a Freudian method versus a Jungian method, as Jung didn’t really have a method by the point the film takes place (he would create it later).

It’s presented as an “either/or” equation, but it’s really a “take it or leave it” about Freudian theories. Jung clearly has a rich history with Freud, but in the end, he could be any doctor trying to work within the structure that Freud laid out. I think our understanding of Jung’s later theories help to inform our view of him as a doctor practicing at this point, but the character that’s presented is very different. He clearly struggles with being “Swiss” (rigid, humorless, severe), but his conflict is totally self-created. Freud seems to be shown as a domineering father (particularly in an Oedipal view of the world), but he’s really correct and Jung is really just a brat.

When I break down the film, I come up only with very Freudian ideas of relationships between Jung and Freud (son and father, son’s revenge against the father, the father’s joy in beating his son). This is interesting to me, but really serves to emphasize how right Freud was and how Jung was mistaken. The ideas that Jung begins to develop (suggestions of supernatural stuff) seems underdeveloped (because it was at this point) and sorta silly.

The technical elements you mention actually didn’t strike me when I watched the film, though your analysis of them is very interesting and probably correct. Cronenberg is a brilliant filmmaker (I think we’ve discussed between us that he’s never made a bad movie and most of his films are good or great) and you point to a great example of his subtle virtuosity. You know how I hate uneven jumps in time as a story goes along, but those didn’t upset me so much here.

Mostly, I found the film sorta uninteresting. I like that it’s a mini-Freudian tale about a father and a son (the mother is psychoanalysis, more than any woman who they both want to sleep with), but that trail doesn’t lead very far. I think it’s a bit cold and easy, which might have a lot to do with the emotionally cold world where Jung lives (which is certainly another compelling motif).

Lastly, I found Knightley’s performance overdone. I know there’s a lot to be said about actors playing crazy people, and Knightley’s performance is more physical than we’ve seen recently. It’s such a physical display (withe her contorting herself and sticking her chin out) that it comes across to me more as affectation than elegant performance. I like the juxtaposition between her and Jung (he’s so stiff he barely moves… and he seems the opposite of a person who would like sadism… which is why it works, in many ways), but I see the performance more as a Cronenbergian gross-out fare than any inspired interpretation.

I should say again, that I like the film – I just didn’t love it. I think it is beautifully made and contains some interesting stuff… I just don’t think it’s more than good. This is when my shrink tells me I’m hard to please. He’s right.



About Aaron & Alex

We're two highly opinionated, movie-going, liberal, cynical, (single) New York Jews who like to bitch about movies.
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