2 Stars – Troubling
For those who find the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung fascinating, David Cronenberg’s version of their lives will be a frustration, but with some interesting observations. Based on the non-fiction book of John Kerr titled “A Most Dangerous Method: the story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein” and adapted for the stage and screen by Christopher Hampton, the embellishment of their relational struggles and inferred sexual fantasies and actual encounters, (which are not fully supported by historical evidence), undermines what could have been a great film.
The setting is early in Jung’s (Michael Fassbender) career when he has begun incorporating the psych-analysis of Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Corrected by Freud in their first actual meeting that his contested form of talk therapy is to be called psychoanalysis, Jung is seen as the heir apparent of Freud’s work. But this proves to be difficult.
The difficulty rests not only in the dogmatic control that Freud has over his concepts, due in part to the many detractors of his work, but also to the transference Jung has toward Freud as a “father-figure” along with some underlying oedipal complex motives. This language of applied psychoanalytic understanding of their relationship is a strength in the film that allows the viewers to experience the developing thoughts of both theoreticians and how they used it both as a tool and a weapon.
But where this relational interplay of developing thought and application reaches its peak is when Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly) enters their lives. Coming as a patient for Jung, Spielrein is a seductive nineteen year old woman whose brilliant mind and psycho-sexual struggles are considered by Jung as a “providential” case upon whom he can try Freud’s method of psychoanalysis. What he uncovers in Spielrein’s psychosexual development becomes a counter transference problem as he becomes involved with her masochistic desires. It is this overstepping of professional boundaries that sets up the action for the film, but it is also the relationship that sharpens his theoretical understandings of the psyche as they become not only lovers but also partners in understanding the anima, animus and shadow aspects of Jungian psychology.
Portraying all three psychologists as troubled and troubling, Cronenberg’s version of their tangled web creates a plausible, if not probable, connection. Based on letters discovered after their deaths, and written in code such that it is not entirely clear what actually transpired between them, this film goes further than the stage play and may unnecessarily detract from their characters. As such, the troubling viewpoint of this film should not detract from the respect due to these theoreticians and practitioners who have greatly impacted modern psychological theory.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. In the beginning days of this new method of therapy, it was considered to be only an improper act to have sexual relations with one’s patient, as seen by the sexually addicted therapist Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel). Such “gross” behavior today is illegal due to our understanding of the power differential in a dual relationship between a therapist and his or her patients. Have you ever been manipulated by a therapist or someone else in a place of power in your life? How did it impact you?
2. The desire Jung had to bring the mystical into therapy was a primary point of contention between himself and Freud. What place do you believe the soul plays in therapy? Should a therapist work with a person’s spiritual or religious beliefs, or choose to ignore them?
3. The support which Mrs. Emma Jung (Sarah Gadon) provided her husband was permissive of his mistress. Why do you believe she behaved in this way? Was it cultural or personal?