A Dangerous Method
directed by David Cronenberg
Sony Pictures Classics

A century later, the clash of the titans of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, has made its way into the cineplex in David Cronenberg’s new film, A Dangerous Method.

At the center of the conflict there is now a woman, Sabina Spielrein, who was virtually unknown until the 1970s, when her papers were discovered in an archive in Geneva. She was psychoanalyzed by Jung in 1904, consulted and worked with Freud, and eventually became a leading psychoanalyst in the Soviet Union, where she and her daughters were murdered by the Nazis. There was reason to believe that she made unacknowledged contributions to both of the great men’s theories. But what sent shock waves through the psychoanalytic community, reeling in the ’70s from accusations of patient sexual abuse, was the revelation that Jung had an affair with her.

Spielrein, the daughter of a wealthy Russian Jewish family, had been admitted to the famous Burghölzli psychiatric clinic in Zurich at age eighteen with the diagnosis of hysterical psychosis. There she came under the care of Jung, who decided to employ for the first time Freud’s “dangerous method.” Dangerous because the intimate fantasies and feelings explored in this treatment might stir up sexual longings in the therapist as well as the patient. That is apparently what occurred; Jung succumbed to the temptation.

Freud had anointed Jung his apostle, “his son and heir,” hoping that the Swiss Protestant psychiatrist would add respectability to what Freud’s detractors called the “Jewish science.” One can only wonder how Freud must have felt when he learned that his prized Christian disciple was having sex with his young Jewish patient.

The Spielrein revelations produced a cottage industry of professional articles, plays, and films, and a book by psychologist John Kerr, The Most Dangerous Method. Christopher Hampton, who with stunning success adapted the classic French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses for the stage and then for the screen, used Kerr’s book and the Freud-Jung correspondence to construct The Talking Cure, a play that opened in 2002 in London’s National Theatre. He would then create another work based on the material, the screenplay for A Dangerous Method.

Hampton is a gifted dramatist, and something should be said about the theatrical version. Disaster struck during rehearsal when the actor who was to play the part of Freud died, and a young understudy who lacked gravitas was pressed into service. Ralph Fiennes’s Jung—which owed much to his Count László de Almásy, the passionate doomed lover in The English Patient—towered over the Freud character. His Jung was the Nietzschean übermensch to whom middle-class morality does not apply, a man destined for greatness, as well as the bout of madness he chronicled in his Red Book. He radiated sexual magnetism; the seduction of his patient seemed Dionysian rather than sick or evil.

Fiennes’s bravura made for an unforgettable night at the theater, but it obscured the cogency and cunning of Hampton’s dramatic adaptation. Critics were not impressed by the urgency of lines taken directly from the Freud-Jung correspondence and wondered what to make of the argument between the two men today, now that their theories have long been discredited by serious psychologists. As performed, the play conveyed none of the cultural significance of the men who transformed the twentieth century’s understanding of the human condition.

Almost a decade later, Hampton gets a second chance with A Dangerous Method. The beautifully crafted costume drama is his screenplay fully realized.

Cronenberg was an unexpected choice to direct the film. Cronenberg cut his auteur’s teeth making low-budget horror films. He is known for mixing science fiction and grotesque violence, exploding heads being only one extreme example. He also seems to be drawn to sexually perversity. His Crash (1996)—not the bland Oscar-winning film with the same title, but a nightmarish portrayal of people who can only get sexually aroused by violent automobile collisions—is a cult classic of sadomasochism that gives new meaning to the term “autoeroticism.” His recent films, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, are more mainstream, but still portray something perversely erotic, even orgiastic, in violent encounters. Sadomasochism is Sabina Spielrein’s sexual fixation, and so Cronenberg is on familiar ground.

Freud had anointed Jung his apostle, hoping that the Swiss Protestant would add respectability to what detractors called the “Jewish science.”

In the opening scene, Spielrein (Keira Knightley) is dragged from a horse and carriage kicking, screaming, and laughing hysterically. Knightley’s performance has been a lightning rod for criticism. Many are put off by that first scene: the grimacing, the writhing of the limbs, the spasmodic speech, and the desperate protrusion of her naturally long jaw. The most mistaken response is that Knightley cannot act.

In fact this may be the remarkable actress’s bravest performance. She studied the Burghölzli’s records of Spielrein’s symptoms and attempted to simulate them. She willingly made herself look repulsive in order to inhabit Spielrein—a “hysterical psychotic” in 1904. The way mental illness expresses itself changes with time and place; Knightley is true to the character, grotesque and alien when seen through the lens of contemporary sensibility. Her sexual thoughts and feelings disgust her, make her nauseous, and those inner feelings are “converted” into the facial contortions of someone vomiting. Cronenberg encouraged this conversion. He told an interviewer, “The words are trying to come up . . . you can’t allow them to come out.”

Liam Daniel / Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Spielrein had an overactive imagination, but she was also a well-educated and brilliant woman. In Hampton’s screenplay she is more psychologically minded than Jung and understands him better than he does himself. Hampton adroitly puts one of Jung’s famous ideas into Spielrein’s spontaneous lines. When Jung (Michael Fassbender) succumbs to temptation and accepts her invitation to a tryst, she welcomes him into the room and kisses him on the lips. He backs away and, with a conventional reaction, asks if she doesn’t think the man should take the initiative. With a knowing smile she responds, “Don’t you think there is something male in every woman and something female in every man?” Jung looks quizzical, as if he never thought of the idea that would become one of his archetypal theories, Latinized by him as the Anima and the Animus. If Fiennes’s Jung was Nietzschean man, a genius in statu nascendi, Fassbender’s is Candide, too innocent to seduce anyone, indeed too innocent to blame for his violation of his Hippocratic Oath.

As Hampton has crafted Jung and as Fassbender plays him, he conveys an innate decency. From his first encounter with Spielrein, he treats her as an equal, with consideration and respect. She responds to that decency at least as much as to the erotic longings released by the exploration of her sadomasochistic fixation. Those in the profession will recognize that Hampton’s Jung is creating a therapeutic alliance.

The movie foregrounds the perverse core of Spielrein’s neurotic conflict; when her father spanked her naked bottom, she became sexually excited. Revulsion and excitement are almost inextricably linked in her psyche. Humiliation is her aphrodisiac, and she despises herself for this. As often happens in actual therapy, she falls madly in love with her therapist as she shares these details with him. She will then do everything in her power to seduce him. Jung resists. He is married and believes in monogamy. He has a wealthy and loving wife who seems to understand better than he does what is happening to him in his treatment of Spielrein.

In Hampton’s telling, what pushes Jung over the edge is the arrival of a new patient and serpent in the garden, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), sent to him by Freud. Gross is part of the official history of psychoanalysis. The son of Austria’s most famous criminologist, he was a brilliant psychoanalyst but hopelessly addicted to narcotics. Freud sent him to Burghölzli in the hope that he could get off the drugs and then return to Vienna to enter analysis. Gross had already been practicing analysis and, as he tells Jung in the film, sleeping with his patients out of the belief that all repression is bad and that Freud was obsessed with sex because he was not getting any. In fact Gross was radical not only in his views about sexual repression, but also about politics—he was an anarchist. Hampton gives us Gross without the politics and portrays him more as Jung’s doctor than his patient. When he elopes from the hospital, he leaves a written prescription—sex with Spielrein. Jung takes the medicine.

Having sex with a patient is a serious ethical violation, destructive if not ruinous. That is the prevailing view. But Spielrein prospers, goes to medical school, and becomes a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst. She is unhappy only when Jung breaks off the affair.

Jung tells Spielrein she was the most important love of his life; she gave him a sense of what he could become.

For the general audience, Jung’s childlike persona takes the sting out of the offense (he keeps his white hat in place even as he participates in Spielrein’s masturbation fantasy and spanks her buttocks). For those steeped in psychoanalytic theory, Hampton is making a deeper point. When the titans went their separate ways, Jung developed his own theory of how analysis cured: the person had to do more than come to understand himself, as Freud had believed. He had to discover what he could be, to create a sense of what he might become. Spielrein explains this to Freud when they meet. He rejects it out of hand.

The Jungian cure is the linchpin of Hampton’s narrative. Jung gives Spielrein the sense that she, “an insane patient,” can become a psychoanalyst in her own right. That is her cure. And the innocent Jung is her patient; she cures him, too. Hampton’s Jung tells Spielrein she was the most important love of his life—she gave him a sense of what he could become. His adulterous affair with her empowers him and unlocks his genius. They have cured each other.

With this story Hampton declares Jung the winner in the twentieth-century clash of the titans. A Dangerous Method is Hampton’s challenge to most American psychoanalysts, who still make their obeisance to Freud. Indeed, the embrace of Jung’s mysticism—the therapy of salvation, as its critics call it—has flourished in contemporary new wave psychology.

There is another element of the film that general audiences might not fully register. Jung believed that dreams, particularly his own, might be prophetic. In the film’s last scene he meets Spielrein long after the affair has ended. He is troubled, not sleeping at night, and on the verge of his “nervous breakdown,” during which he will produce a chronicle of his journey into psychosis, the Red Book. If Spielrein was his guide and mistress on his first empowering journey, Toni Wolff, another patient and mistress, will steer him through his psychosis and help him record it. Spielrein extracts his confession about Wolff, whom she emphasizes is like her, a half-Jewish patient. Neither agreeing nor disagreeing, Jung goes on to tell her the dream that is bothering him. A flood is sweeping over Europe, and it reaches Switzerland as an avalanche of blood. Spielrein asks him what it means. He answers that he doesn’t know unless “it’s about to happen.” His dream on the eve of the First World War is prophecy. Hampton’s Jung is not just a genius; he is divine. The film does not have a happy ending, but for the Jungian faithful it is vindication.

I have said nothing about Viggo Mortensen’s Freud. Mortensen is an actor of great talent and charisma, and on screen he is certainly a match for Fassbender. His impersonation of and resemblance to Freud are uncanny. But speaking Hampton’s lines, his Freud is small-minded, reductive, doctrinaire, and manipulative. It’s a shame that there is no sign of the mind that gave birth to The Interpretation of Dreams, the book that earned the real Jung’s unqualified admiration. Absent is the Freud who opened a road into the world of the unconscious that Jung—and so many others—travelled for the rest of their lives.