A Dangerous Method: Sex and Professionalism

A promotional poster, Freud's phallic obsession prominently featured.

If you’ve ever sat in a restaurant and discreetly listened to the conversation going on in the booth behind you, or if you’ve ever seen and enjoyed Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre, you will most likely be thrilled with David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. If it’s a good conversation, eavesdropping can be one of the sweetest joys in life. Sometimes it is better to simply hear what others have to say. Rather than overhearing one single conversation, watching Cronenberg’s movie is like listening to an extended dialogue, fragmented by space and time but linear enough to easily follow. And, yes, it is a good conversation; intellectually stimulating and perversely sexy.

A Dangerous Method is based on Christopher Hampton’s play A Talking Cure. Both are excellent titles, hinting at some of the most important aspects of the story. I suspect that they’ve chosen A Dangerous Method for its sex appeal. Appropriately enough, I say. There are the occasional outbursts of sex (as would be necessary for any movie involving Freud), but most of the action in A Dangerous Method is of people talking about their ideas about talking. The spiral staircase works like this:  Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud talk to their patients in an attempt to cure them of their psychological diseases, and then they talk to each other about their methods of talking. They discuss what they talk about and what they should be talking about. In essence, A Dangerous Method is a film about professional sex talk. If you don’t like to hear people blabbing on and on, then avoid this movie.

When Freud and Jung first meet, Jung is a budding psychologist in Switzerland, following in the heavy footsteps that Freud had laid down before him in Austria. They talk for thirteen hours straight without even seeming to notice all the time that has slipped by. They have, it appears, plenty to talk about. Jung, who has been using Freud’s methods, is more than a fan of psychoanalysis, but he feels that Freud is doing his patients a disservice by focusing all of the psychoanalytic attention on the patient’s latent (or not-so-latent) libido. Jung wants to explore other sources of psychological distress, including religion. Freud, however, believes that psychoanalysis will only be respected if it keeps its conversation within the bounds of science, discussing only observable phenomenon. Religion, spirituality, and all other manner of hocus pocus, therefore, have no say in the psychoanalytic conversation.  The idea that Freud’s motivations weren’t fixated on sex so much as they were concerned somehow for the safety of the field he’d been staking out, comes as a revelatory thought. Freud’s zealous need to protect his baby might seem short-sighted, but at such an early stage in the development of psychology and psychoanalysis, it’s easy to see where one could make a paternal error of that sort.

The trigger for Jung is one of his most fascinating cases, Sabina Spielrein, played by Kiera Knightly, in what is probably her most desperate (in a good way) performance. Spielrein is an attractive Russian Jew, abused by her father, still a virgin, and turned on by sadomasochism. Her sexual proclivities stem from the abusive father, but are not dampened by his evil. Sex, then, in and of itself, is not the determining factor in Spielrein’s psychosis. She distracts Jung from his pregnant wife, but he is able to maintain his professionalism, following the very sensible practice of keeping his patients in his office and his love life in his home. To this point, the psychoanalytic method has proved relatively safe given its carnal focus. But when Jung receives Dr. Otto Gross (the sinister Vincent Cassel) into his psychological care, things go off the rails. Wrapped in a loveless marriage and convinced by Dr. Gross that it might be alright to use his doctor-patient relationship to get some action, Jung actually deflowers and regularly beds the very excitable Spielrein. The results are pleasant for a while, but turn sour quickly enough.

We sense that Jung is testing the limits of psychoanalysis, and his own limits as a person and a professional. Yes, he is in love with Spielrein, but he knows full well the danger that his relationship can get him into. He knows that he can be completely discredited as a psychoanalyst and shamed by both his family and his community. He cares about all those things, but he can’t help himself. And while his relationship  doesn’t destroy his career (Jung would go on to become the world’s leading psychologist after WWI), it did precipitate a split with Freud, his talking partner and one time mentor.

Freud, you see, did not approve of Jung’s business/pleasure cocktail. Freudian psychoanalysis lives on the edge of insanity. By placing the center of all human behavior in between the legs, Freud’s ideas flirted with edge of disaster. The method, when taken to an extreme, can be dangerous indeed. Freud did not approve mixing business with pleasure.

If you are looking for intense arguments and backstabbing, you’ll find a little of that between Jung and Spielrein, but not between Jung and Freud. They are civilized people, not given to psychological disease, and engaged in intellectual conversation and revolutionary research. There’s no shouting match between them, only calculated letters, vicious dream interpretations, and cold dismissals. Jung and Freud are tastefully bitter.  The fault, of course, is with both of them; with Freud for rejecting Jung’s superior ideas and with Jung for violating the professionalism that psychoanalysis requires for success.

It is a joy to watch Mortenson and Fassbender disapprove of one another.

A Dangerous Method is deliberately paced and unexciting by most standards. It can be easy to get distracted while watching it. Your mind, as it might when dropping in on any real conversation, strays and thinks about other things, only to come back to the subject at hand. While watching it, I had the sensation of floating through. If that’s not your thing, then you could at least watch A Dangerous Method for the three knockout performances by Knightly, Mortenson, and Fassbender. All three are scene stealers, and since they almost always appear in the same scenes, they have to be content with stealing individual shots.

If you’re familiar with Cronenberg’s work and you haven’t read anything else about this movie, A Dangerous Method will probably come as a shock to you. In style it has very little in common with past titles such as Scanners, The Brood, or The Fly. In short, no one grows a bodily appendage that threatens both themselves and the world around them. There’s no ESP either. Sorry to disappoint. But remember that this is David Cronenberg, a director long fascinated with the psychosomatic. So while the period piece style is miles away from the body-horror of his past films, A Dangerous Method is a natural extension of Cronenberg’s pet themes. The difference here is that we are now able to contemplate the psychosomatic in a historical context. Cronenberg is finally making his inner demons respectable.

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