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A Dangerous Method

Freud and Jung spar in Cronenberg film

Jan. 24, 2012
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The ideas of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung changed the world, and the bitter split between the great explorers of human consciousness became an intellectual civil war whose reverberations can still be felt, even after the colonization of psychiatry by the pharmaceutical industry. David Cronenberg's film A Dangerous Method, based on a best-selling factual account, dramatizes the two men and their link through Jung's patient, Sabina Spielrein, who was sent to Western Europe by her wealthy Russian Jewish family to be cured of hysterical fits.

Although her accent wavers, Keira Knightley memorably depicts Spielrein as a howling, twitching mad woman when first carried into Jung's Zurich clinic in 1904. As outwardly imperturbable as an Antarctic glacier, the keenly observant Jung (Michael Fassbender) began to untangle her emotional knots through a careful application of an experimental method known as talk therapy. He eagerly presented his findings to the inventor of talk therapy, Freud, and called on the professor's Vienna home. Never separated from his cigar, the smugly self-assured Freud (Viggo Mortensen) saw himself not merely as the master to Jung's apprentice, but as the father and Jung as the son—the heir on whom he projected his hopes for the future of psychoanalysis.

Meanwhile, Jung fell into a tempestuous affair with Spielrein. Perhaps he loved her, but he was also drawn to the exotic, fiercely intelligent woman by a desire to embrace the other, the Jews who assumed the yin in his imagination to the Aryan yang. She studied with Jung and Freud, proved willing to argue with both, and became an analyst in the Soviet Union before being murdered by the invading Nazis in 1941.

Although the Jung-Spielrein affair provides the dramatic hook for A Dangerous Method, the film's soul comes from long conversations and written letters between the three principal characters. In Cronenberg's compression of the events, Jung expressed doubts at his first meeting with Freud over the older man's “exclusively sexual interpretation” of the memories and dreams that emerge from talk therapy. In A Dangerous Method, Freud plays the inflexible patriarch, demanding obedience and convinced that “the world is as it is. Accepting that is the way to psychic health.” More prophetic of the postmodern 21st century, Jung imagined many worlds, many paths, and the possibility that people could reinvent their lives rather than accept them as inevitable. He comes across as the better man in A Dangerous Method.


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