A brief disclaimer is in order before I follow through here. I haven’t picked up much psychology reading in quite a while. Essentially, if you’re looking for a scholarly analysis of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011) from such a context, I am unable to provide it. The problem with this rather wonderful film is that it also never really provides it. A Dangerous Method focuses on young psychoanalyst Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his occasional mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) as the two attempt to cure the young, smart, beautiful, but psychologically damaged Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). While Cronenberg and screenwriter Christopher Hampton allude to the theories of Freud and Jung and the differences between their philosophical approaches to the budding discipline of psychoanalysis – differences that would eventually sever their relationship – we never feel like we are on solid ground.
Spielrein, the daughter of a rich Jewish-Russian family, is incredibly smart and wishes to become a doctor herself. Yet, she suffers hysterics whenever she feels intimidated and her violent episodes lead to her institutionalization under Jung’s care. Jung decides to utilize Freud’s “talking cure” to get to the root of Spielrein’s illness. The two of them discover that her father beat her when she was a child and she experienced sexual pleasure during these sessions, which, due to intense guilt, she repressed. Now in her twenties, she from crippling neuroses due to the repression of these feelings and emotions (she is, after all, a child of the 1800s). Jung and Spielrein make progress, and her episodes begin to mellow.
Soon after, Jung connects with Freud, his older, father figure and the two discuss their approaches. Freud, in Jung’s view, reduces everything to the pleasure principle (sex!), and his treatment ends with the acknowledgement of the ailment. Jung believes that there are other factors, aside from sex, that drive man and that it is not enough to recognize a sickness. Rather, one must study it and attempt to cure it via a deeper understanding of its causes. This leads Jung to turn to what Freud interprets as mysticism, an approaches that he feels will bring down their discipline. In order to attempt to sway Jung, Freud introduces him to another psychiatrist, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel). Otto is the prime example of Freud’s theory, a creature driven by libido, who is more than willing to sleep with his patients.
Jung, a married man influenced by Otto, eventually beds Spielrein out of love and out of treatment. In the end, they confirm one another’s theories of the human mind. Jung’s actions have an undeniably sexual component that he uses to make himself “sick” in order to drive himself to find a cure. Thus, he both exemplifies Freud’s theory (sex!) and his own (it’s not just sex!). Freud, who claims to see Jung as standing on his level, is condescending towards his protégée. Freud pushes him away and, in the process, forces him to embody a variation on the Oedipus Complex.
Rethinking the film now, perhaps my initial critique overstates the case a bit. The film provides a primer of psychoanalysis but I wish it would go further and deeper. Yet, despite the film’s minor flaws, it does provide tremendous gifts in the form of the film’s performances (all three leads are stunning here, especially Knightley), Cronenberg’s uncharacteristic restraint, and the challenging questions the film poses to the willing viewer.