Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and their famously conflicted relationship, has intrigued me since I studied psychology in college. I'm also fascinated by Jungian psychology. I've been looking forward to this movie and to seeing what David Cronenberg would do with this subject.
Michael Fassbender is Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung. He brings the understated intensity we saw in Hunger and Shame to this role. He portrays a man who is repressed in many ways, yet a subtle reaction or shift in expression speaks volumes. Viggo Mortensen is Sigmund Freud, Austrian physician and father of psychoanalysis: the "talking cure." With his ubiquitous cigars and holding forth on his psychosexual theory of development, he could easily have been a caricature, yet he plays the role in an understated way, and the character earns our respect.
Kiera Knightley portrays Sabina Spielrein, Jung's first patient and an influential psychotherapist in her own right. When she first comes onscreen, being treated for "hysteria," her behavior is veering out of control and she is racked with agonizing fear and guilt. Her odd jerky body movements -- according to cursory research I did after the movie -- were accurate, based on clinical descriptions of Sabina's behavior at that time.
Jung treats Sabina with Freud's innovative "talking cure," and he contacts the famous doctor to consult about the case. Thus begins their famous collaboration, with Jung becoming Freud's "undisputed crown prince," meant to carry on his mentor's ideas and work after his death. Having learned that Sabina hopes to become a doctor, and realizing she is exceptionally bright and insightful, Jung mentors Sabina in her own career as a psychotherapist.
They also become lovers, although Jung loves his wife and is conflicted over taking a mistress. In contrast to Jung's description of his conjugal relations as "habit" and "always tender," Sabina likes it rough. Thus we get an image of Kiera Knightley, in a corset, ecstatically being flogged. And I thought people were joking when they said this movie contained BDSM. As an aside, while I was watching this scene, two thoughts drifted into my mind. First, I wondered whether these naughty bits were believed to fit the facts, or if they were included to attract a wider audience. By "wider audience," I mean aside from nerds like me who actually like listening to Freud and Jung spar over psychological theories. My second thought was, "I wonder which hurts more, being flogged or having to wear a corset?"
Overall, I thought this was an excellent movie, and to the best of my knowledge, most of it fit the facts. Many of Freud's and Jung's most famous ideas are lightly touched upon -- including the psychosexual theory of development, synchronicity, and the anima/animus. It gave viewers a peek at some of the bizarre psychiatric "treatments" practiced at the time.
It also offered glimpses of Freud and Jung's relationship and the issues that ultimately tore them apart. A Dangerous Method focused less on their famous friendship and more on their connection to Sabina. The movie portrayed this as a triangle among the three, which was a bit of a stretch, but it was intriguing. Furthermore it is known that Jung and Sabina shared some kind of intense romantic connection. Whether they were sexually involved is a matter of debate, but it makes sense. Kinky sex? Flogging? That's a bit of a leap, but given what is known about Sabina, it's not completely implausible. And people would be sorely disappointed if they sat through a Cronenberg film without seeing anything more controversial than competing psychological theories, now wouldn't they?
I definitely think this movie will appeal most strongly to people who are already interested in, and a bit knowledgeable about, the subject matter. However it is well worth watching for the writing, direction, and acting alone. I was thoroughly impressed by all three of the leads, especially Fassbender.
Finally, I can't think about Sigmund Freud without remembering Joey's famous onstage "Ode to Penis Envy" in Friends. Classic stuff! For the record, I believe Freud was a genius, but a notion like penis envy is begging to be mocked. So I leave you with this: