One of the few working directors who deserves to be recognised as an auteur is David Cronenberg and a signature element to his films is how much they invite psychoanalytic readings. So to have Cronenberg direct a film about psychoanalysis founders and pioneers Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) is something of a cinephile’s dream come true. In A Dangerous Method, which was based on the play The Talking Cure (by Christopher Hampton who also wrote the screenplay) and the non-fiction book A Most Dangerous Method (John Kerr) Jung is using Freud’s talk therapy on Spielrein shortly after the First World War. Spielrein, who later became a psychoanalyst herself, becomes a forbidden object of desire that is too much for Jung to resist, resulting in an affair. Jung is therefore a quintessential protagonist for Cronenberg. In his 2001 book The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg, William Beard describes Cronenberg’s dominant theme from Videodrome (1983) onwards as a focus on ‘a pathfinding, transgressive [male artist/creator] figure delving into hidden or repressed realms where others do not wish to go.’ Jung is that transgressive creator and the realm where nobody else wishes to go, which is both hidden and repressed, is the unconscious mind of Spielrein.
While very much a dialogue-heavy historical film, all the recognisable elements of Cronenberg’s preoccupations can be found in A Dangerous Method. Given Cronenberg’s previous exploration of psychoanalytic concepts such as the monstrous feminine as defined by patriarchal culture, it could almost be argued that A Dangerous Method is the most obviously Cronenbergian film to date, despite the absence of visceral bodily horror that so defined his earlier films. In place of abject gore is Knightley’s portrayal early in the film of Spielrein suffering from hysteria, which has resulted from her intense self-loathing and guilt towards her own sexuality. Just as psychological conditions manifested physically in films such as The Brood (1979), Spielrein’s inner torment spills out into her body as she sits close to the centre of frame, almost looking at the audience, and contorts and writhes while Jung talks with her. Knightley is all chin and forehead, at times threatening to stab the audience with her face in a truly confronting and remarkable series of scenes.
Stylistically the film begins with a sense of melodramatic urgency to mimic Spielrein’s distressed state of mind. The music is full of dramatic flourishes as she is rushed into hospital by horse and carriage. As Jung’s methods take hold the film calms right down into the clinical style that is so common in Cronenberg’s films. The cinematography is crisp and in deep focus, carefully composed close-ups lovingly portray the different apparatus used in Jung’s tests and white dominates every scene. The hospital walls are white, the patients are dressed in white, Jung’s wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) dresses in white and all the bed sheets are white. The use of white is not only clinical, but it suggests Jung’s detachment from not only his family and work – he by contrast always dressed in black – but from his own sexuality, despite being part of a new psychosis treatment that involves talking explicitly about the sexuality of others. We never see any sense of true physical or emotional affection between Jung and Emma, and even the birth of his child is deliberately kept off screen with the baby first appearing in the film not being nursed by Jung or Emma, but by an anonymous nurse.
The main source of tension in A Dangerous Method is Jung having serious doubts about his view of sex as a somewhat functionary act, needing to be controlled and at best something that can simply be described as ‘tender’ between man and wife. Continuing Beard’s arguments about the characteristics of Cronenberg’s protagonists from Videodrome onwards, Jung desires a transgressive transformation that will ultimately prove to be destructive, although in the case of the far more subdued A Dangerous Method, melancholia is the price Jung plays rather than literal obliteration. The transformation is to become somebody who indulges in their sexual whims to the extent that it means the ultimate betrayal of the doctor/patient relationship.
One trigger for Jung’s transgression is Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), who is the other extreme to Jung in terms of advocating indulging in every sexual desire possible and therefore both horrifies and fascinates Jung. Then there is Spielrein, the closest thing A Dangerous Method has to a monstrous feminine, whose passions twice spill blood into the pristine white colour scheme of the film and who becomes the figure that Jung spills his anxieties onto. Earlier in the film while Jung is treating Spielrein, they walk across a bridge high above a wild forest, suggesting an attempt to cross the divide between the conscious and unconscious mind. Later in the film they are depicted together adrift in a lake in a boat with suitably red sails, as if now lost together in the unconscious.
The final trigger for Jung’s transgression is his desire to undermine Freud, his father-figure type mentor whose methods he deviates from in classic Oedipal defiance. (And the Oedipal dynamic is completed by Spielrein who is first the object of Jung’s forbidden desire and then becomes a symbolic maternal figure after she aligns with Freud). Freud is differentiated from Jung in numerous ways including class, wealth and race, but it is once again the depiction of the spaces Freud occupies that combines the most interesting comparisons. While Jung’s offices and home are sparse and controlled environments, Freud works in a warmly lit cramped office that is filled with books, cultural artefacts and photos. Jung floats at sea or stands above a forest, while Freud walks through an elaborately manicured garden that allows for abstraction without loosing its sense of order and control. A statue of a sphinx stands in the garden, yet another reminder of the prevailing imagery of the monstrous feminine in folklore, mythology and psychoanalysis. Jung smokes a pipe, which requires careful preparation to arrange the tobacco in a concealed space to be respectfully enjoyed. Freud smokes a… does it even need to be written out?
A Dangerous Method is a puzzling film as despite being directly about psychoanalysis, it’s the most surface level of all of Cronenberg’s films. Rather than delving into the murky depths of the human mind, A Dangerous Method is more an opportunity for Cronenberg to stage an extended dialogue between historical figures whose work clearly means a lot to him. This is nonetheless compelling cinema, especially for audiences resigned to the fact that more questions are going to be asked rather than answered. Is sex an act of liberation, denial of the self or surrender? Strong arguments are put up in all instances and like all matters of sexuality, it seems the ones who are least comfortable with their own are the ones who make the most fuss about it.