David Cronenberg’s new historical drama offers an alternative perspective on the creation of psychoanalysis by focusing on the figure of Carl Jung. Charting the Swiss psychiatrist’s rise to prominence and subsequent break with Freud, A Dangerous Method features enchanting performances from all the main actors who drive forward an engaging plot.
The story begins in 1904 with Sabina Spielrein, a rich and well educated Russian woman who has been diagnosed with hysteria. She is forcefully taken to the Burghölzli psychiatric hospital in Zurich for treatment. Placed under the care of 29 year old Carl Jung, Sabina becomes the subject of an experimental therapy inspired by Sigmund Freud and known as psychoanalysis, or the “talking cure”.
Initially facing resistance from Spielrein, Jung soon reveals her “psychosexual” fixations, which involve her relationship with her father during her childhood and how this is affecting her current behaviour. When Freud begins collaborating on Spielrein’s case, he and Jung become friends, talking for up to 13 hours at a time and maintaining a regular written correspondence. A period of tranquillity ensues as Spielrein resumes a relatively normal life. The influence of psychoanalysis continues to expand, despite those endeavouring to have it condemned as unscientific.
Into this equilibrium comes Otto Gross, a renegade psychoanalyst and drug addicted libertine, who, because of his cocaine and morphine abuse, has ended up in the care of Jung. The anarchic Otto soon becomes a big influence on the sober and reserved Carl, convincing him of the inherent absurdity of monogamy and encouraging him to take up an affair with the beautiful Spielrein. Otto then seduces a nurse, getting her to give him access to a ladder with which he scales the wall of the hospital and runs off (quite comically) into the countryside to evade his treatment.
The impressionable Jung decides to throw caution to the wind and engage in an (at times bizarre) sexual tryst with Sabina, breaking the doctor-patient relationship. It is the potential damage the affair might cause to the reputation of psychoanalysis, as well as certain ideological differences between Freud and Jung, with which the rest of the film concerns itself, amid the growth of Sabina as a psychoanalytic theorist and the approach of the First World War.
A Dangerous Method proves to be a watchable, if conventional, coming of age story, focusing on Jung’s journey through Freudian psychoanalysis and into his own realms of thought.
The one real problem with the film is its rather conservative morality. Much of the action shows a serious and logical man civilising a frenzied and irrational woman, with only a few flashes of revolt on the part of Spielrein to redress the balance of power. Despite the sexual liberation promised by psychoanalysis, the film shows this to be a very male sexual liberation, liberation from responsibility and loyalty. Overall David Cronenberg’s take on the creation of psychoanalysis works well and is an enjoyable and thought-provoking experience.
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