Sabina Spielrein was one of the first female psychoanalysts, a fascinating achievement given the fact that she was committed to a mental institution for an entire year. After studying medicine and child psychology in Zurich, graduating in 1911, and getting elected into the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, she proposed an idea in 1912, namely that the human sexual drive contained both an instinct of destruction and an instinct of transformation. Her death in 1942 at the hands of an SS death squad would all but erase her from the history books until her hospital records, journal entries, and letters to and from Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud were discovered and published; it’s now widely accepted within psychiatric circles that her 1912 proposal greatly influenced the works of both men.
Spielrein is one piece of the puzzle in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. We follow her, Jung, and Freud in a story that examines their complex relationship, which is simultaneously strengthened and threatened by their field of interest. Academically, they recognize the frailties of the human mind and strive to steer others in socially acceptable directions. Personally, they continuously fall victim to the mental weaknesses they so carefully study, and they become increasingly aware that social acceptability doesn’t necessarily translate to common practice. Strange, how even those who categorize people into absolutes can themselves fall within ambiguous parameters. Perhaps it’s those very absolutes that drive people towards unhealthy behaviors.
One focus is the relationship between Jung and Spielrein, which begins in 1904 and develops over the course of nearly a decade. Initially, Jung (Michael Fassbender) was a fledgling twenty-nine-year-old psychologist, who was married to a gentle but passive woman named Emma (Sarah Gadon) and was expecting his first child. Spielrein (Keira Knightley), Russian-born but able to speak fluent German, was a violent, severely traumatized eighteen-year-old mental patient placed under Jung’s care, having been diagnosed with hysteria. Under an experimental form of therapy known as “the talking cure,” Jung sits behind Spielrein and listens as she struggles to verbalize her problems. She eventually reveals a childhood marred by beatings and humiliation at the hands of her father. Further sessions unwittingly reveal a sexual proclivity: She becomes uncontrollably aroused by physical force.
This discovery brings Jung into the life of his mentor, Freud (Viggo Mortensen), as it validates his theory that sexuality and emotional disorders are intertwined. As the years pass, what began as a cordial, clinical acquaintanceship deteriorates into a stubborn clash of ideologies; Jung becomes increasingly bothered by Freud’s unwillingness to reconsider his theories about sex, whereas Freud cannot tolerate Jung’s growing interest in spirituality. During their initial correspondence, Freud refers Jung to a psychiatrist-turned-patient, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), a drug addicted hedonist; his arguments against monogamy inspire Jung to violate his code of ethics and begin an affair with Spielrein, which continues long after she ceases to be his patient and enrolls in medical school. This is not merely a physical attraction. He has truly fallen in love with her.
I have no way of knowing how historically accurate this film is, given the fact that the relationship between Jung and Spielrein has never been substantiated. There is, however, some compelling evidence of their affair, most notably the fact that, unlike Freud, Jung never publically acknowledged Spielrein’s influence on his work. Rumors of other extramarital affairs also continue to circulate. Given this history, it’s easy to see why Jung is portrayed as a weak man in the film – intellectually brilliant but emotionally stunted, consumed by guilt over a situation he could have prevented. He continues having children with his wife, and yet he cannot detach himself from Spielrein, who may be troubled but is also incredibly intelligent and sincere.
The screenplay by Christopher Hampton, adapted from his stage play The Talking Cure (itself adapted from John Kerr’s nonfiction book A Most Dangerous Method), is well suited for the actors, the dialogue clever, elegant, and packed with emotion. In true psychological form, every line suggests a hidden meaning. This is especially apparent with Freud, portrayed as a piercing intellectual who isn’t interested in solutions so much as the underlying problems – which, it seems, all stem from the sexual organs. His scenes with Jung flow like verbal ping pong matches. The scenes with Jung and Spielrein are fascinating in that they’re founded on more than curiosity, desire, and passion; they depict the birth of a psychological movement. Herein lies the greatest strength of A Dangerous Method: It’s a film to be listened to and not just watched.
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Sony Pictures Classics