Thursday, April 5, 2012

"Never repress anything": 5 questions about Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method

Delightfully constrained, given to occasional lapses in narrative coherence, David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method struck me as both humorous and thought-provoking.  What to make of ground-breaking psychiatrists earnestly analyzing their sexual impulses and taking notes?  Set in the early 20th century, the film reminded me of Scorsese's The Age of Innocence--lots of desire under buttoned-up Edwardian clothes, seven years of letters being written back and forth between Vienna and Zurich as Jung (a bespectacled Michael Fassbender) and Freud (Viggo Mortenson) figure out what to do with the madly passionate and brilliant Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) who tends to thrust her jaw out and convulse when she isn't jumping into the Burgholzi clinic's pond as she confronts her father issues (many people in this movie have father issues). From an early age, Sabina found that her father's spankings excited her, and Jung takes a while to consider what to do about this patient who develops the hots for him. Jung, meanwhile, has a chilly blonde and rich Swiss wife named Emma (Sarah Gadon) who wants to bear him a son when she isn't buying him a sailboat with symbolically red sails.  As Freud puffs on his cigar and walks repeatedly past a sculpture of a sphinx in some park in Vienna, the two doctors analyze each other's dreams as best they can ("I believe the log represents the penis").

Torn by his dread of violating his patient-doctor ethics, Jung still has to figure out what to do about Sabina. As she says, "I want you to punish me." Uncertain, Jung finds himself lured by the loose talk of bearded Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), one of Freud's more unscrupulous proteges ironically in need of therapy at Burgholzi. An anarchist, an early hippie, and my favorite character in the movie, Otto lives by the rule "Never repress anything," and its fun to see him convert Jung into seriously considering polygamy, falling prey to the intrigue that he's inclined toward anyway (as in The Black Swan, Cassel again proves adept at stealing his scenes).

While I like the film overall (it made me realize how much I respect Cronenberg even more than Freud), it did leave me with some questions:

1) What's the deal with the sphinx?

2) What are we to make of Cronenberg's use of water imagery? The film moves from Sabina's muddy immersion in a pond, to Jung and Sabina blissfully curled up in the hull of his sailboat as it drifts unmoored, to Jung (spoiler alert) emulating Michael Corleone of The Godfather: Part II (1974) as he sits on land and looks meditatively out over the water in the final shot of the movie. Are we supposed to associate water with passion, freedom, immersion in subconscious drives? Also, Jung has a prophetic dream of a flood of blood overwhelming Europe, hinting at the first World War.

3) Jung tells Freud that with his psychoanalytical techniques he has opened the door to a new land.  Later, the two men travel to America in a Titanic-like ship where Freud causes the first major rift in their relationship by refusing in divulging in his dreams, saying that "To do so I would lose my authority."Are these things related?

4) Later, Jung confesses to Sabina that she is the love of his life. Why doesn't Cronenberg sufficiently dramatize this? Given her desperate quest to seduce him earlier, the film tends to relish but not really flesh out these ironic reversals.

5) How much are Freud's and Jung's theories oversimplified and caricatured to fit into the confines of this movie? The film did make me want to read Jung's essay "Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle."

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

1. The Sphinx was one of Freud's favorite objects/images.

2. I was also struck by the last Corleone shot of Fassbinder. Did Cronenberg see these guys as criminals?

3. The relationship between Freud and Jung in the movie reminded me of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in "Interview with the Vampire". I only remember one scene at night in the film (The brief scene on deck of the ship where Freud admits his fear/anxiety over Jung's powers). Did Cronenberg see these guys as some kind of reverse-Vampires?

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Anon,

I doubt if Cronenberg saw Jung as a criminal. It does seem a shame that he didn't have more time to develop the relationship between Freud and Jung. As in so many biopics, the film only has room to hit the highlights of their friendship/falling out. With all due respect to the movie's production values, I still find Freud's tendency to symbol-monger Jung's dreams humorous.