“A Dangerous Method” (2011). Cast: Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel, Sarah Gadon. Director: David Cronenberg. Screenplay: Christopher Hampton. Book: A Most Dangerous Method, by John Kerr. Play: The Talking Cure, by Christopher Hampton. www.sonyclassics.com/adangerousmethod/index.php
Despite recent advances in understanding, psychiatry is a discipline that’s still often misunderstood, even lampooned at times. However, things have come a long way over the years, and they stand to gain further ground with initiatives aimed at promoting greater awareness and acceptance. That effort has even carried over into the arts, such as in movies like the new historical drama, “A Dangerous Method.”
The film focuses on the life and career of famed Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) from 1904 to 1913, a time when he became involved in two of his most significant personal and professional relationships. The first was with one of his patients, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a highly intelligent young woman prone to fits of unexplained hysteria. Over time, Jung helped her discover the source of her behavior, eventually curing her. He even assisted her in launching a career as a psychoanalyst after noting her natural capabilities in this area. At the same time, Sabina helped Jung discover things about himself that he never knew, prompting realizations that made him a better therapist and aided him in his own personal growth.
The second relationship Jung developed during this time was with the father of modern psychiatry, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). In many respects, Freud was a mentor to Jung, advising him on various psychoanalytic techniques (Freud’s methodology even played a major role in Jung’s treatment of Sabina). However, an ever-widening gap between the colleagues began to develop over time. Jung, whose vision included a belief in the validity of unconventional notions like intuition and precognition, found Freud’s purely scientific method (and, specifically, his almost exclusive sexual interpretation of patients’ maladies) too limiting. Freud, on the other hand, considered many of Jung’s ideas to be superstitious nonsense that he feared would undermine the credibility of the psychiatric field. Before long, a split occurred between the two, but not until after a significant exchange of ideas occurred, many of which profoundly influenced Jung’s outlook, theories and practices.
While the film’s narrative is ostensibly about a specific period in Jung’s life, its script is in actuality more symbolic and idea-based than purely biographical. Perhaps the most significant theme is the picture’s spotlight on the uncanny parallels between the practices of psychotherapy and conscious creation. Both, for example, frequently require their participants (the patient, in the case of psychotherapy, and the practitioner, in the case of conscious creation) to “go within” and become introspective. The “work” that each does is quite similar; a psychiatric patient seeks to discover what’s behind his or her psychological discomfort, while a conscious creation practitioner endeavors to get a handle on his or her beliefs. And even though these objectives may not be identical, they’re remarkably alike in that both play a crucial role in creating the reality that manifests and is subsequently experienced.
This becomes very apparent in Jung’s therapy sessions with Sabina and with another of his patients, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), a referral sent to Jung by Freud. Through probing questions, Jung helps his patients discover the beliefs driving their behavior and, consequently, the reality they experience. Interestingly enough, however, the process also works in reverse: The patients’ answers often shed light on Jung’s own beliefs, helping the doctor to better know himself. In this regard, then, Jung’s patients are externalized projections of his own beliefs, providing him with a mirror of self-discovery and helping to illuminate the reality he’s creating and experiencing, ultimately yielding both professional and personal rewards.
For Jung, the impact of this is perhaps greatest in expanding his understanding of impulses. He comes to see the inherent danger in stifling them, particularly how self-imposed repressiveness can lead to severe behavioral disorders, a condition not uncommon in his time, given the prevailing puritanical values of the period. He also realizes that acting on such unexpressed impulses – allowing one’s true self to surface, to put it in conscious creation terms – is crucial to psychological health and well-being, especially when it comes to those of an emotional, sexual or metaphysical nature, something he witnesses firsthand in working with his patients. This, in turn, enables Jung to see which impulses of his own he’s stifling, particularly those related to the fulfillment of unexpressed sexual desires. As much as he loves his adoring wife (Sarah Gadon), he longs for other carnal experiences and comes to realize the harm he might be doing to himself by leaving those notions unexplored, an awareness that leads him to make some changes in his life. Not everyone may agree with his choices, but at least he’s being honest with himself in making them, assuredly one of the highest attainments one can aspire to as a conscious creator.
But Jung’s journey involves more than discovering the uncharted territory of his waking life. He also probes the inner world of the psyche in ways that his more orthodox peers avoided. His interest in examining such phenomena as synchronicities, telepathy and dream analysis from a scientific perspective drew ridicule from colleagues, especially Freud. The unconventional nature of these ideas was too much for mainstream psychiatric professionals to consider, even with Jung’s insistence on using the scientific method to study them. However, he held steadfast to this vision, exploring it in greater detail later in life.
Jung’s approach to investigating this material raises another parallel to conscious creation, a process to reality manifestation driven by beliefs, the product of a synthesis between intellect (symbolic of science) and intuition (symbolic of spirit). Jung’s interest in integrating both disciplines showed that, on some level, he understood the conscious creation process and was willing to employ it in his research. This was also reflected symbolically in the very nature of the relationship between Jung and Freud, with each colleague embodying part of the process: Freud, the scientist, symbolized the intellect, while Jung, the budding spiritualist, represented the intuition. In presenting this material in this way, the film thus offers quite a fitting tribute to its protagonist, someone who was, ironically, so captivated by the presence – and power – of symbol in our lives.
Despite its many fine attributes, “A Dangerous Method” is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, especially for more sensitive viewers. As much as I enjoyed it, I can appreciate that many moviegoers might find its talky script a bit tedious and its sexually provocative content somewhat disturbing (I’m honestly surprised this film received only an “R” rating instead of an “NC-17” designation). However, those who are not so easily bothered by such considerations will come away from this picture feeling rewarded.
This offering from director David Cronenberg is quite a departure from his usual fare, but it succeeds in many respects. It features excellent performances by Fassbender and Mortensen, who deservedly earned a Golden Globe Award nomination for best supporting actor, as well as excellent period piece production values. The writing covers its material well, with ample wit and no psychobabble and providing viewers with an excellent introduction to the psychoanalytic process, although some of the screenplay’s transitions aren’t quite as smooth as they probably could have been. The movie’s only major letdown is its embarrassingly over-the-top performance by Knightley, who unfortunately lost sight of her role while gunning for hoped-for awards nominations, a real disappointment from an often-underappreciated actress.
Jung’s contributions to the field of psychiatry are sometimes overshadowed by those of his elder Viennese counterpart, though this film helps to make up for that oversight. Jung hoped that the psychoanalytic process could become a tool that would not only help individuals overcome their challenges, but could also serve as a means of personal transformation, a noble goal to be sure. With the recent growth in popularity in philosophies like conscious creation and the law of attraction, one can sense Jung’s influence looming in the background, his ideas closely paralleling those of these more contemporary schools of thought. And because of such practices, we can hope that his vision will indeed one day become a reality.
Copyright © 2011, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.