Almost a decade later, Hampton gets a second chance. The film re-titled A Dangerous Method is brought to us in a beautifully crafted costume dra-ma that features wide-angle close-ups in which every shot is a work of art, Jung and Freud are iconic, and Hampton’s screenplay is fully realized. David Cronenberg was an unexpected choice to direct the film. Cronenberg, a Canadian, cut his teeth as an auteur making low-budget horror films. He is known for a mix of sci-fi and grotesque violence, exploding heads being only one extreme example. He also seems to be drawn to the sexually perverse, as in Crash. Not the bland Oscar-winning film with the same title, but a nightmarish portrayal of people who can only get sexually aroused by violent automobile collisions. It is a cult classic of sadomasochism that gives new meaning to the term “autoeroticism.” His recent films, The History of Violence and Eastern Promises featuring Viggo Mortensen, are more mainstream, but there is still something perversely erotic—even orgiastic—in the violent encounters. Sadomasochism is Sabina Spielrein’s sexual fixation, and so Cronenberg is on familiar ground.
Christopher Hampton’s screenplay places Sabina Spielrein at the apex of the triangle with Jung and Freud. She is the demonic force. The opening scene has her being dragged from a horse and carriage kicking, screaming, and laughing hysterically. Keira Knightley was chosen to play the role and her performance has been a lightning rod for critical reaction. Many are put off by the opening scenes, the grimacing, the writhing of the limbs, the spasmodic speech, and the desperate protrusion of her naturally long jaw. The most mistaken response is that “the woman” cannot act. In fact, this may be the remarkable actress’s bravest performance. She studied the Burghölzli’s medical records of Spielrein’s symptoms and attempted to simulate them. She willingly made herself look repulsive in order to inhabit Sabina Spielrein—a “hysterical psychotic” in 1904. Psychiatrists know that the way mental illness expresses itself changes with time and place. Knightley is true to the clinical description of that earlier time, although grotesque and alien when seen through the lens of contemporary sensibility. Her sexual thoughts and feelings disgust her—they make her nauseous—and those inner feelings are “converted” into facial contortions (the protruding jaw) as though she were retching. And Cronenberg, as he told an interviewer, encouraged Knightley in this “conversion,” “the words are trying to come up . . . you can’t allow them to come out.”
The real Spielrein had overactive emotional reactions, but she was also a well-educated and brilliant woman. In Hampton’s screenplay, she is more psychologically minded than Jung and understands him better than he does himself. Hampton adroitly puts one of Jung’s famous ideas into one of Spielrein’s spontaneous lines. When Jung succumbs to temptation and accepts her invitation to a tryst, she welcomes him into the room and kisses him on the lips. He backs away and with a conventional reaction asks her, “Don’t you think the man should take the initiative?” With a knowing smile she responds, “Don’t you think there is something of the man in every woman and something of the woman in every man?” Jung looks quizzical as if he never thought of that idea. It would become one his most basic archetypal theories, Latinized by him as the Anima and the Animus.
I credit Hampton for knowing that most of his audience would miss the deeper significance of this exchange, but those steeped in psychoanalytic theory would not. I also assume that in his depiction of Jung and Freud, he was speaking both to his general audience and to those still invested in their disputes. For the general audiences, Jung is the cowboy in the white hat and Freud is wearing the black hat. If Ralph Fiennes’ Jung was Nietzschean man, a genius in statu nascendi, Michael Fassbender’s Jung is Candide: too innocent to seduce anyone . . . indeed too innocent to blame for his violation of his Hippocratic Oath.