I was a bit reluctant to see A Dangerous Method. Carl Jung’s ideas about the collective unconscious, synchronicity, archetypes, and the anima/animus were revolutionary at the time and still make a lot of sense to me. If you’ve ever taken a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, that’s based on Jung’s concept of extroverted vs. introverted personalities. But the trailer sort of made it seem like I was going to have to title this review “Carl Jung Did More Than Feud with Freud and Sleep with His Patients.” Though Jung did have differences (and a messy breakup) with his onetime mentor Sigmund Freud, and at least two extra-marital relationships, there is so much more to the life and work of one of the 20th century’s greatest minds. And thankfully, A Dangerous Method is a better film than its trailer.
It is true, Jung was unique in his time for his emphasis of feminine consciousness, and he had many female patients, students, and colleagues, many of whom worked closely with him when they became analysts and/or researchers in their own right, well before women were the norm in the field. Method is about the relationships between Jung (Michael Fassbender); a woman who was all of the above plus Jung’s mistress, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley); and both of their relationships, a kind of intellectual triangle, with Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Also in the mix are a couple of polar opposites —Emma, Jung’s rather uptight wife (Sara Gadon), who knows all, and Otto Gross, a libertine student of Freud’s (Vincent Cassel), who avoids repression of any urge.
Sabina Spielrein was the first patient Jung attempted to cure with Freud’s “talking cure,” the basis of modern psychoanalysis. The danger of this method is transference, in which the patient transfers their feelings, often romantic or erotic feelings, to the therapist. The film opens as she’s in the midst of a nervous breakdown, being admitted to the Burghölzli, a psychiatric hospital at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, where Jung is assistant director. She’s volatile and disturbed, but she’s smart and educated, not to mention beautiful, and she responds well. Because her stated ambition is to become a doctor, she is soon helping Jung with his research, while he’s still treating her. She is admitted to a university and they work together. Eventually, Jung and Speilrein become lovers.
At the beginning of the film, Jung and Freud haven’t yet met. When they do, they have a 17-hour conversation and Jung is deemed heir apparent to Freud. “I’ve simply opened a door,” Freud tells Jung. “It’s for the young men like yourself to walk through it.” But as their collaboration continues, it seems like Freud would rather slam the door shut than let Jung take over. Freud thinks all neurosis has a sexual cause, and Jung believes that there are other factors, including spirituality and individual personality. Freud, almost 20 years older and set in his ways, is more and more reluctant to hear the younger man’s ideas. We see the authoritarian, almost tyrannical, side of him, and the cold and ruthless streak in Jung. Spielrein is caught in the middle — her love is with Jung but her mind takes her nearer to Freud.
The acting is uniformly great. Fassbender and Mortenson are excellent of course. Gadon is appropriately controlled. Cassel has an interesting cameo as Gross, who sets the stage for Jung and Spielrein’s relationship. Gross seems like a representation of Jung’s desires; we never see him talking to anyone else and he says so many things that Jung wants to hear.
But the real surprise to me was Keira Knightley. She shows you Sabina’s struggle, intelligence, and persistence. Even when she’s in full breakdown mode, she manages to suggest that there’s something more there, whatever it was that allowed a mental patient to become an analyst herself. I even liked her accent. I figure that’s what a Russian immigrant in Switzerland would sound like. I thought she deserved a Best Supporting Actress nomination but with the field so crowded with excellent performances, I knew it was a long shot.
Jung’s ideas are fairly abstract but the movie does a good, if somewhat sensationalized, job of explaining both his and Freud’s ideas. Christopher Hampton wrote the screenplay, an adaptation of his own play The Talking Cure, sometimes using Jung’s and Freud’s exact words. The language is beautiful and delivered well, be it smooth, violent, or repressed. Ultimately the film is beautifully shot but never fully sheds its stage-play origins. That’s a small price to pay though, when you’re witnessing a revolution.
PS: If anybody wants to read up on Jung, I highly recommend Introducing Jung written by Maggie Hyde and illustrated by Michael McGuinness. It’s like a comic book and it really explains things in an effective and painless way.