‘Nice story’, Freud says when Jung gives him an account of a patient’s pathology. The tone is amused, but a sense of shock lingers, an ironically disguised disapproval of everything the master learns about transgressive behaviour. Jung is shocked too, but also excited. But then the patient is Jung’s, a disturbed woman not at all underplayed by Keira Knightley. The movie – David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, with a screenplay by Christopher Hampton – opens with a view of her struggling against her captors in a horse-drawn coach (the date is 1904) and being delivered to a posh sanatorium in Switzerland. She goes rigid when she tries to talk, can’t at first get her words out, but finally tells her story to the kindly Jung. Her father used to beat her when she was a small child and … she liked it. It’s early days in the plot – it doesn’t end until 1913, with war on the horizon and intimations of the extermination of Jews – but the film begins to get a little lost around here.
The film’s chief implication seems to be that the men are wrong to be shocked – their job is psychoanalysis, or ‘psychanalysis’ as Jung wants to call it till Freud corrects him – and nothing alien is supposed to be inhuman to them. But then they both, in this movie, fervently believe in repression, so the sight of the analyst repeatedly spanking the patient for her pleasure (never mind his) doesn’t appear quite the right way for the talking cure to be going. It’s the worldly amusement and the unworldly excitement that seem off, as if both analysts were wilfully missing the point of their own insights. An acknowledgment of a little old-fashioned, undiluted shock would do them both a lot of good: Freud doesn’t need to be so wise, and Jung doesn’t need to be so eager.
It’s hard to tell whether this is what the film wants us to think, or just a collateral effect of the set-up. The figures, including that of the young woman, Sabina Spielrein, are historical, but this is not a historical movie. It is a fantasy about authority and desire, with symbolic names slotted in for the key roles. Or, to put that another way, it is a form of biopic that knows it’s not a biography but a picture. It looks wonderful – the cinematographer is Peter Suschitzky – but this only makes it feel more like a movie. The voices are a clue as well. Michael Fassbender as Jung and Viggo Mortensen as Freud speak with flawless English accents, as does Sarah Gadon as Emma, Jung’s all too perfect wife. Knightley speaks fluent American-Russian, and Vincent Cassel as the disreputable Otto Gross sounds as French as he always does, indeed repeats more or less word for word his role in Black Swan. However, the Swiss and Viennese locations look Swiss and Viennese, and when Freud and Jung write to each other – we see the script over their shoulders – they write in German. This is history in the movies: the world is real but the actors are actors, and we wouldn’t want it otherwise. But it does mean that we concentrate on the actors, they are the main sources of meaning in the film, and their supposed names are just allusions. These gestures can be comic, as when Jung and Freud board a boat for America, and Freud turns to a character we have not seen before, saying: ‘Do you have the papers, Ferenczi?’ It’s tough to be a minor player in the history of psychoanalysis, but perhaps better than not being a player at all.
Fassbender, Mortensen and Knightley are very persuasive: that is, they play out their symbolic roles with precision and discipline and only a touch too much earnestness. But are they supposed to be what they finally seem: priggish rather than conflicted in Jung’s case, unbearably avuncular in Freud’s, irremediably angry in Spielrein’s? The problem, I think, is that the plot is much more banal than the questions it wants to raise. Should the analyst sleep with his patient, as Jung does? Should he cater to her masochism? Should he abandon his respectable life for her, if he loves her? Her stilted lines don’t help our inquiry: ‘I wish you to be ferocious. I want you to punish me.’ Jung’s answers, depending on the moment at which we catch him, are yes, yes, no, or three nos. But surely the questions are entirely different from each other, and the storyline can’t tell us anything about this. The person who knows the answer to all three questions – namely, that Jung should do whatever he likes – is Otto Gross, in treatment with Jung, before he declares himself cured and climbs over the sanatorium wall. When Jung asks him if it is true that he once helped a patient to commit suicide, Gross says he gave her a choice: death or sleeping with him. Cassel delivers the next line with a wonderful note of discreet satisfaction, even triumph: ‘She opted for both.’
Freud is an agnostic on these matters; in the film he just wants to keep psychoanalysis on track and in history. That’s why he is so opposed to what he thinks of as Jung’s interest in the occult, or as he puts it, Jung’s wanting to ‘wallow in the black mud of superstition’. Jung by contrast wants to think everything is possible but can’t overcome his own conventionality except in brief bouts of beating Sabina, which don’t seem like much of a departure from his ordinary self – unless we think the difference between the quiet autocrat and the violent one is the difference that counts. Sabina meanwhile matures, becomes an analyst, marries and is pregnant when we last see her. If her madwoman is a bit stereotypical at the beginning, Knightley acquires a real presence in these late scenes, because she represents a way of surviving pain and betrayal with dignity, although not without regrets. But what was it she wanted from Jung that wasn’t a delayed impersonation of her abusive father?
The film recounts, as it has to – this is a bit of bio the pic can’t do without – the split between Freud and Jung. Various grounds for division are available – the question of ‘superstition’ I have just mentioned, a fight for supremacy in the psychoanalytic movement – but the film settles on the Oedipal conflict between figurative father and son. The comedy here is so dazzling and intricate that one only hopes it’s intended. The question has been aired several times. Jung recounts a dream in which Freud appears as an undead customs officer unable to stop traffic across a border between oneiric realms. Freud won’t tell his dream in return because it might, he says, weaken his authority. But the set-piece occurs in a session where a number of analysts are present, and Jung wonders whether the wish to murder the father is as central to the psychic history of humanity as Freud says it is. Freud cites the Egyptians, Jung offers a pedestrian reading of why the pharaohs erased the names of their predecessors. Freud, still trying for his old smugness and air of superiority, is so distressed by this attack that he faints. You can kill the father, in other words, by insisting that killing the father is not the question. This scene seems to prove Freud right in his father-theory, but it may just show that Jung is obtuse, or even that Freud would be likely to faint if any theory he held were seriously contested.
The other theory that gets quite an outing in the film is that represented by Jung’s denial of coincidence. He has various intuitions, hunches, premonitions, and refuses to believe chance has anything to do with them. He thinks the bookshelves are about to make a noise, and they do. Freud says it’s the heating, Jung says no, it’s about to happen again, I can feel it. The bookshelves creak on cue. This is laughable, but what about the final dream Jung recounts, which involves rivers flowing everywhere with what he calls ‘the blood of Europe’. Well, it’s just a dream, as he says, ‘unless it’s about to happen’. The First World War was not a mere creaking of a bookcase, and the film invites us to look beyond it into later horror. Freud has already reminded Spielrein that they both are Jewish, and has oracularly said: ‘Put not your trust in Aryans.’ Has this been a question in the film so far? Was Spielrein’s Jewish father an Aryan? No, but this is what happens when you do history in the movies: you smuggle Ferenczi in as an extra, and you get to Nazism in a postscript about what happened to the players after the plot ends. Freud died in exile in London in 1939, Spielrein was killed in Russia by the Germans in 1942; and Jung lived on as ‘the world’s greatest psychologist’ until 1961. Priggishness pays, at least for Jung as he is portrayed in this movie; but is this proposition a sardonic comment or a bit of acquiescent realism?