Monday, February 13, 2012

Ken's Review of A Dangerous Method

by Ken Ludlow

Early on during my first psychotherapy, which was psychodynamic but neither Freudian nor Jungian in the strict sense of those terms, I asked my seasoned therapist what the main difference was between undergoing a Freudian and a Jungian analysis. After a brief pause he replied, “Well, if a guy were to undergo a successful Freudian analysis he would probably still feel a bit nuts but he’d actually be doing quite well. If he were to complete a Jungian analysis he’d think he was one of the sanest men on the planet but he’d still be really nuts.”
A Dangerous Method conveys the underlying validity of my therapist’s wry statement without lionizing Freud, slagging Jung, or otherwise hitting us over the head with it. Cronenberg does a very admirable job at what is an almost impossible task, the making of an interesting movie about complex ideas. And he manages to do it with the kind of emotional restraint this particular task requires. The down side to this is the fact that doing so with intellectual integrity unavoidably results in a film that is of interest to a fairly limited audience. The friendship and collaboration between these two psychological geniuses that showed such early promise was short-lived and not filled with the kind of high drama and intrigue that makes for compelling movie scenarios. To offset this built-in limitation Cronenberg bases his film on Christopher Hampton’s play, The Talking Cure, which gathers its dramatic tension by placing Jung’s analysis and eventual affair with the beautiful young Russian aristocrat Sabina Spielrein, at the center of Jung and Freud’s building conflict.

The film opens with Spielrein, a sexual masochist and hysteric of psychotic proportions, being brought to Switzerland’s Burgholzli psychiatric clinic where Jung, the gifted and innovative young psychiatrist will introduce her to Freud’s revolutionary “talking cure” in which he saw great promise. At this point Jung, who is developing his own word association method for gaining access to unconscious processes, is an admirer of Freud’s writings but has yet to meet the man. Cronenberg presents Jung as a keen observer of human subtleties who seems to have his patient’s best interest at heart. At the same time we are given subtle indications that he’s also a very ambitious man who is much more interested in his own ideas than he is in other people. Michael Fassbender is brilliant at emitting the kind of studied warmth that successful salesmen use to obscure their self-serving agendas. If we imagine being in the company of his Jung we probably would not think, “this is a bad man”, but if we listened carefully to ourselves we might hear, “this man wants what he wants and others are regarded as either a means to getting it or a hindrance”. This trait, which will make the kind of collaboration Freud hoped for impossible for Jung, is highlighted in a gently comical tableau during Jung’s first visit to Freud’s home in Vienna. We see the two men at the dinner table, Jung locked in their on-going conversation while he thoroughly loads his plate with what the serving maid has to offer. Freud finally looks down the table and the camera shifts to give us the view from their perspective. Freud’s entire family looks back into the camera as they wait in patient silence for some of the food to come their way. Jung is there to talk with Freud so other people in the room might as well be furniture.

So much about these two men and their important differences is conveyed via subtle visual details, including costume, throughout the film. When Freud, embodied with just the right degree of gravitas by Viggo Mortensen, questions Jung about the affair with his patient, played well except for a distractingly inconsistent Russian accent by Keira Knightley, they are in Jung’s sailboat. Freud is dressed like a man going to an opera and sits scrunched in the boat’s small cockpit looking every bit like he’s simply enduring this outing to accommodate Jung. We know Jung’s denial is a lie and can feel Freud’s contained annoyance at not getting a straight answer. Jung wants what he wants and is not about to explore his professional and moral conflicts with even this man he claims to so admire. Cronenberg is showing us two very different men who arrive at their respective theories about human functioning and psychopathologies in quite different ways. Freud was a strong and determined leader who knew he had started something of historical significance but he was also a tireless collaborator. As he developed and advanced his theories he changed them quite frequently because they arose primarily from close clinical observation where human complexity is a constant source of surprise. They are theories about mental functions and psychopathologies but they always remain grounded in the mind’s relationship to the body and the immediacy of its urges. As Mortensen’s Freud puts it, he feels like Columbus who has set foot on an unknown land and all he knows for sure is that it is right there under his feet waiting to be explored.

Jung was not a collaborator and much of what he arrived at came from his wealth of knowledge of Classical Studies, Anthropology and Archeology. His creative reinterpretations of mythology and world religions are brilliant in their panning for psychological gold. And some of his theorizing about the nature of the self and its drive towards actualization prefigured important advances in Psychoanalysis by a couple of decades. However, as Cronenberg’s film intimates through its presentation of character, what unfortunately limited Jung’s legacy in comparison to Freud’s was his rigid confidence in his own brilliance. In one scene Freud listens to Jung’s dream and sees in it an unconscious conflict about an unruly sexual impulse. Jung pays the interpretation little heed because it’s just another demonstration of Freud’s insistence on putting too many eggs in the sexual basket. Meanwhile Jung is the one who is acting out sexually with his patient and will not, in fact, stop it with just this one. As William S. Burroughs once put it, “never be such a shit that you don’t know you are one”.


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