A Dangerous Method begins in a carriage. Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) is hysterical. Grinding together her canines, she resembles an animal in the wild. She is impossible to control, typically ‘mad’. Towards the end of the film, we see Sabina in a carriage again. This time, however, she is calm, almost stately, one step short of becoming a renowned practitioner of the very psychoanalysis that helped her recover. A Dangerous Method is the story of her cure, of ‘talking’ as treatment. Given the hours we spend in the chambers of therapists and psychologists today, the movie asks a question that could not be more pertinent – is repression the key to our happiness or is it abandon?
The film records a time when ideas and beliefs turned quite as dramatically as the century
Set in the very early 1900s, A Dangerous Method records a time when ideas and beliefs turned quite as dramatically as the century. Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) had begun positing theories that would form the bedrock of psychoanalysis, and psychologists like Carl Gustav Jung (Michael Fassbender) had begun putting his ideas into practice. For Jung, Sabina is his first Freudian case study. He sits behind her in a room, goading her to open up about her childhood. She relives the humiliation she felt when her father would spank her naked body. She then confesses to being excited by this punishment. Apparently shocking, disclosures like these are commonplace in the film.
The shadow of fathers looms large over A Dangerous Method. Sabina’s preoccupation with paternal disciplining is perhaps an all too literal allusion to the violence fathers are often capable of, but it is in the relationship between Jung and Freud that we see more subtle tensions which mark exchanges between parent and child. Freud refers to Jung as his “son and heir”. Like all sons, Jung resists the influence of his sometimes patronising “father figure”. Over the years, Freud’s critics have disparaged his insistence that most human problems are rooted in sex and sexuality. Jung is no different. “There must be more than one hinge into the universe,” he says. Like an engineer who mocks a son’s desire to take up the arts, Freud outright dismisses Jung’s fascination with the occult.
Vincent Cassel plays a cameo in the film, and advocates a freedom that proves seductive for Carl Gustav Jung
Vincent Cassel plays a brief cameo in A Dangerous Method. While his Otto Gross also negotiates the stringency of a father, he advocates a freedom that proves seductive for Jung. “Never repress anything,” he tells his fellow analyst. To Jung, who tries hard to negotiate his sexual desires for Sabina, this advice proves to be a license. He is married. He has children. Sabina is his patient, and wants from him a lovemaking that borders on bondage. The effects of this affair are devastating – Freud loses faith in his protégé – but the sheer gratification of desire also leads to a pleasure for Sabina that’s enabling. Conflict, she concludes, is essential for creativity. Sex is like death – they each require a disavowal of individuality. Men and women both carry traits that first belong to the other.
In a film that lasts 99 minutes, director David Cronenberg covers ground that several psychoanalytic volumes have not been able to map. Complex theory is made so much more accessible when watching the story of those who conceptualised it. Keira Knightley traces Sabina’s transition from patient to practitioner with an assuredness that is simultaneously vulnerable. Viggo Mortensen brings Freud to life with a stern brilliance that appears effortless. But A Dangerous Method needs to be watched for Michael Fassbender. Jung didn’t just put his reputation on the line with Sabina. He also wagered his sanity with Freud. Fassbender makes these risks seem worth his while and ours too.