Recently I attended an advance screening of A Dangerous Method, a film by David Cronenberg, set in Europe on the eve of World War 1, examining the friendships and conflict between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. The film opens in New York and LA on November 23, 2011.
This film is based on a play that was based on a book. So not surprisingly, some of the stage and theatrical elements have survived and A Dangerous Method at times seems like a splendid 90-minute costume drama that serves as a platform for the bristling and occasionally tedious dialectic between Jung and Freud. And the nexus for the brilliant but troubled young woman who comes between them.
A Dangerous Method opens with the young woman, Sabina Spielrein, being literally deposited at an asylum outside of Zurich where Jung was a doctor. Her jaw-jutting, frenetic writhings stands in sharp contrast to the doctor's understated, behind-the-patient remarks about the talking cure. This is acting underdone and overdone. She will get better. The doctor, played by Michael Fassbender, seems to stay in his "brown study."
It is very difficult for a film, depicting events more than a hundred years ago, to capture the heady, early years of the 20th century, the profound experimentations in psychology, theater, and fiction and the itch to deconstruct an old 19th century reality. These forces were in the air in the film and frame many of the discussions between the character Freud, the father, and character Jung, the son. The former argued, accurately from an historical perspective, that psychology had to rely on science and not the mysterious and esoteric, such as mythology, that would become central to Jung's understanding of the personal and collective unconscious. But in a film that represents a condensed period before WWI, the issue for Freud was more about "parental" authority. Thus he wouldn't share a dream with Jung.
Freud, played by Viggo Mortenson, seemed to steal the interpersonal show with his wit, charm, and understatement. One of the most telling scenes was when Jung visited Freud in Vienna. We see him at the Freud family table with a dozen people, helping himself to most of the family portion while he talks endlessly about sex and psychology. We already know that Jung is rich through marriage and seems in this film to be made somewhat unconscious by this advantage. Gluttony appears in many guises.
The emotional center of the movie is Sabina Spielrein, Jung's patient and then lover after he is prodded by a marvelous walk-on character who reminded him of his shadow side. The two scenes in which Jung spanks Spielrein, thus getting to the seat of her trauma, will represent audience takeaways. It is more than mildly ironic that while Jung is engaging Freud in deep conversations about the future of psychotherapy, he is having sex with his patient. For 90-minutes, at least, Jung's actions seems to legitimize Freud's point-of-view.
If you are interested in the birth of psychoanalysis, this film is worth seeing. And it's cheaper than analysis.