A Dangerous Method (Can/Ger/Switz/UK 2011)

Sabina (Keira Knightley) takes notes as she and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) play Wagner's Die Walküre to an audience in Jung's clinic

When I mused on the possibility of showing A Dangerous Method to A Level students a few months ago, it was suggested to me that it was too wordy – with the implication that students would be bored. Now I’ve seen the film, I wouldn’t worry about the dialogue at all. The narrative seemed to race along to me. If the film has a flaw it is in the closing stages of the narrative when I felt I was being rushed through some short scenes which spanned several years and in which a great deal of narrative development needed to be inferred. For such weighty subject matter the film is actually quite short (99 minutes) and at the end I was enjoying it so much that I could happily have taken another 30 mins. As usual, I read an interview with director David Cronenberg (in Sight and Sound March 2012) after seeing the film. Perhaps I should have read it first because the interview explained several points I’d puzzled about during the screening.

The ‘Dangerous Method’ is a reference to the ‘talking cure’ constituted by the nascent medical practice of psychoanalysis as practised by Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) in Vienna and taken up by the psychologist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) in Zürich in the early 1900s. At first there is almost a father/son, master/pupil relationship between Freud and Jung – something which events will ultimately undermine. The two confer over the case of a young Russian-Jewish woman, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who arrives at Jung’s clinic suffering from ‘hysteria’ but who will eventually become a leading psychoanalyst herself. Sabina is a historical figure who was murdered by the Nazis in 1941.

The film does seem to have provoked a very hostile reception from fans of Cronenberg’s earlier work in ‘body horror’ and from others with a strong interest in either Freud or Jung or both. As a squeamish film watcher I avoided Cronenberg’s earlier films and only began to be interested in his work at the time of Crash (1996). I was painfully aware of Freudian ideas when they were fashionable inside film studies in the 1980s and I’m aware of him as a historical figure but I’ve never read Freud and I know even less about Jung. I’m not sure if this is an advantage or a disadvantage in watching A Dangerous Method, but I think some of the criticism of the film that I’ve read is plain silly.

Here are just a few observations about the film narrative. The screenplay is by Christopher Hampton who wrote a play The Talking Cure first performed in 2003. There was also a book by John Kerr, A Most Dangerous Method (1994) and various historical documents that also informed the screenplay. This review of Hampton’s play by the Guardian‘s Michael Billington is interesting in that I had the opposite response to that of Billington (an excellent critic) when I watched the film. I noticed, but didn’t think too much about, the points Billington makes as I was too busy enjoying the spectacle. Billington argues is that the play is about ideas but that an over-fussy set is distracting and that perhaps a film would be better. However I saw a film about characters in a particular historical context. Cronenberg creates a world of order in Vienna and Zürich. The sun is nearly always shining, the houses, rooms and, most of all, the formal gardens are beautifully designed, clean and sparkling. The clothes are exquisite (and Knightley and Fassbender wear them beautifully). The cinematography by Cronenberg’s long-term collaborator Peter Suschitzky uses the settings to create a composed world. The film deals with the period between 1904 and 1912 when the five great empires in Europe were at their height (Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, France and Britain). Only a few years later and the five would be at war and in Central Europe (apart from in Switzerland) the certainty of outlook and status of rich scientists like Jung (the money was from his wife’s family) would be severely questioned. The insights that Freud and Jung has into the psyche would become potentially even more important in the aftermath of the ‘Great War’.

Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross

(Some spoilers in this para)

The ideas in the film are about sexuality and mental health, about social status and about anti-semitism. Freud needed Jung because his Swiss Protestantism diluted the Jewish Austrian identity of the Viennese group of psychoanalysts. Freud was also disturbed by Jung’s class position and possibly felt undermined. He despaired when he learned of Jung’s interest in the possibilities of parapsychology, having hoped that Jung would help psychoanalysis achieve status as a scientific discipline. Hampton’s strategy in the screenplay is to explore these ideas first through Jung’s treatment of Sabina’s hysteria. Hysteria (literally a condition associated with the uterus) appears to have been a socially constructed ailment afflicting young middle class women whose sexuality was severely repressed in polite society. Sabina has to ‘face up’ to what has caused her physical ailment and she does so through the talking cure when she finally admits to Jung that she became sexually excited after being beaten by her father and felt a desire to masturbate. In order to represent the symptoms of hysteria Keira Knightley ‘gurns’ (pulls very exaggerated facial expression), squirms and shouts excitedly in a performance that some viewers have interpreted as ‘over the top’. As far as I can see Knightley and Cronenberg researched this and I think her performance is terrific. I think she is well-cast and certainly matches the two male leads. When Sabina asks Jung to spank her as the final act of her abreaction, the narrative leads us into a potential sexual relationship with Jung. He is in turn egged on by a provocative and dangerous psychotherapist, Otto Gross – played with enormous brio by Vincent Cassel. Gross is all in favour of therapists having sexual relationships with their patients and discovering more about human sexuality. Cassell reminded me of the figure of the satyr or the god Pan – all hair and testosterone. As an actor he has always reminded be of Michel Simon – this time perhaps as the tramp in Boudu Saved from Drowning. Our interest in Jung’s possible infidelity also prompts us to think about Mrs Jung, seemingly always pregnant (and serene) played very well in such a difficult role by the young Canadian, Sarah Gadon. What we should also remember is that Otto was recommended to Jung (as a patient) by Freud and that Sabina will eventually move to Vienna when she has qualified as a psychoanalyst herself.

The film narrative is essentially about the triangle of Jung, Sabina and Freud, although Jung and Sabina are the main focus. I found the first 80-90% of this narrative fascinating but lost it in the final stretch. There is an interesting sequence on the liner taking Jung and Freud to New York – which tells us a great deal about the state of their relationship, but frustratingly little about why they were going to America and what happened when they got there. Otherwise, I think this is a great watch and I’ve praised many of the others so I should finish by congratulating Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen as well. I’ve seen many reviews by disappointed Cronenberg fans who think that the film is ‘staid’, ‘conservative’ etc. but I think that they miss the point. Cronenberg, Suschitzky and production designer James McAteer have created a representation of a world of sexual repression and bourgeois respectability within which some intellectual breakthroughs are achieved through and perhaps in spite of some interesting personal relationships. Now, perhaps I should read that book on Jung and Film (Hauke and Alister 2001) that has remained unopened for so long? We’ll see.


  1. Rona

    I read a review a couple of months before the film came out here by the unparalleled Amy Taubin which praised the film – and talked about its source material. See: http://www.filmlinc.com/film-comment/article/david-cronenbergs-a-dangerous-method for her review – interesting not least because of the way in which she links it to previous Cronenberg work. I’ve been reading John Kerr’s book as a result since – and there’s an interesting line fairly early on so relevant to the film, I think. Kerr introduces the tale by stating: “If I could characterise it in a single phrase I would say it’s an unusually gruesome ghost story, where the ghost who finally devours all the people in the end, is not a being but a theory – and a way of listening.” The film – and particularly the central performances – bring that tragedy to life, although it does suffer from its episodic form. The beauty of the scenes do also have a clinical detachment to them – which at times make it feel like its skimming the surface of all its fascinating themes, not least the potential underlying differences between the Jewish Freud and Spielrein and the Protestant Jung (another whole film in itself. The end of film ‘biographies’ make a contrast between the fates of Freud/Spielrein and Jung, who is neither driven from his home or subject to an untimely death).

    Knightley was a revelation – some of the reviews have been way off beam. She characterises the hysteria magnificently as from a whole person within – rather than a set of actorly ‘ticks’ and mannerisms. There is, of course, a social gender question in here as well – and the scenes of Spielrein’s challenge to Freud are very ‘modern’. As for Freud and film – whilst some might like it to ‘go away’ and psychoanalytical theory in film is certainly not ‘fashionable’ in academic circles these days, I really enjoyed the way this film’s power was not just in the sexual or the father-son surrogate relationships (expected) that are depicted, but the way the passion of the clash of ideals in ideas is brought so vividly to life – and how they are limited by the human beings that think them and all their own desires. If nothing, these ideas are not quite dead (or ghostly) yet?

    One thing – it certainly drives me back to watch Cronenberg’s ‘Dead Ringers’ again – with the twin gynacologists (Jeremy Irons) and Genevieve Bujold’s patient-lover between them.


    • Roy Stafford

      Yes, Amy Taubin’s review is impressive – not least because she attempts to say something about the use of the wide angle lens. I tried hard to study the images while keeping up with the dialogue but it defeated me on a first viewing.

      I think we are in general agreement on the film but I’m not completely sure I understand what you are saying about psychoanalysis and cinema/film studies more generally. I do agree that it’s good to see ideas discussed in the context of the people and the circumstances in which they were developed. That’s why we need another similar study of Freud in America – and a sense of Freudian and Jungian ideas applied outside the confines of the bourgeoisie and imperial Vienna/Zurich.

      On a positive note, it’s good to see that after initial hesitation audiences seem to have taken to the film in the UK with an increase in the box office take for Week 2 (with the distributor and exhibitors having the confidence to increase the screen count).


  2. keith1942

    Well, I am in a minority here. I thought the film was at best interesting, with some good visuals. I thought the treatment of psycho-analysis was banal, as indeed was some of the dialogue. The still Roy posted reveals this – patients are listening to an early recording of Wagner, so we have a poster in frame to make sure we recognise him!
    I thought Knightley over-acted, though Mortensen and Fasbender are good. For me the best bit of the film was Vincent Cassell, whose appearance is way too short.
    A much better treatment of psycho-analysis and Freud and Jung is Jan Svankmayer’s Surviving Life. And it is a good deal funnier.


    • Roy Stafford

      I agree that Surviving Life offers a more sophisticated presentation of Freud and Jung but I’m not sure about the comparison. Cronenberg operates in a version of mainstream cinema and his films are more accessible. I agree with you re Vincent Cassel but not re Keira Knightley.


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