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A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method

- David Cronenberg’s film A Dangerous Method tells the story of the relationship between Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Jung (Michael Fassbender) and a woman named Sabina (Keira Knightley) who had a considerable influence on both of them. © Sony Pictures Classics

A century after it happened, the clash of the Titans of psychoanalysis, Freud and Jung, has made its way into the cineplex in David Cronenberg’s new film, A Dangerous Method. The critics are giving it thumbs up for its achievement in bringing a moment in intellectual history to life for general audiences. And disciples of both men will have to admit that it’s not the muck-raking expos it could have been. There is, for example, no mention of Freud’s adventure with cocaine, nor Jung’s early ideas about a racial unconscious.

What supplies the melodrama required for film is Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) who, as it turns out, was an important player in the clash between the great men. Spielrein was virtually unknown until the 1970s, when her papers were discovered in an archive in Geneva. She was psychoanalyzed by Jung (Michael Fassbender), consulted with Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and became a leading psychoanalyst in the Soviet Union, where she and her daughters were murdered by the Nazis. Her papers suggested that she made unacknowledged contributions to both of the great men’s theories. But what sent shock waves through the psychoanalytic community, reeling in the 1970s from accusations of patient sexual abuse, was the revelation that Jung had a prolonged affair with her.

Spielrein, the daughter of a wealthy Russian Jewish family, had been admitted to Bleuler’s famous Burghlzli psychiatric clinic in Zurich at age 18 with the diagnosis of hysterical psychosis. There she came under the care of Jung, who decided to employ for the first time Freud’s dangerous method—The Talking Cure. Dangerous because the intimate fantasies and feelings explored in the treatment can stir up sexual longings in the unwary therapist as well as the patient. That is apparently what occurred in Jung’s first analysis, and he succumbed to the temptation. Freud had anointed Jung as his apostle, “his son and heir,” hoping that the Swiss Protestant psychiatrist, the son of a pastor, would add respectability to what his detractors called the “Jewish Science.” One can only wonder how Freud must have felt when he learned that his prized Christian disciple was having sex with his young Jewish patient. Cronenberg’s film tells the story of Sabina Spielrein’s crucial role in making and breaking the Freud/Jung relationship.

The Spielrein revelations produced a cottage industry of professional articles, plays, and films, and a book by psychologist John Kerr, A Most Dangerous Method. Christopher Hampton—who had with stunning success adapted the classic French novel Liaisons Dangereuses for the stage and then for the screen—used Kerr’s book and the Freud/Jung correspondence to construct The Talking Cure, a play that opened in 2002 in London’s National Theatre. He would then create the screenplay filmed by Cronenberg in 2011.

Hampton is a gifted dramatist, and something should be said about the theatrical version. Disaster struck during rehearsal when the actor who was to play the part of Freud died and a young understudy who lacked gravitas was pressed into service. Ralph Fiennes as Jung towered over the Freud character. Fiennes’ Jung owed much to his Count Laszlo de Almsy, the passionate doomed lover in The English Patient—the role that made him an international star. His Jung was also the Nietzschean Ubermensch to whom middle-class morality does not apply, a man destined for greatness and the bout of madness he chronicled in his Red Book. The seduction of his patient seemed a Dionysian happening rather than a boundary violation. Fiennes made it an unforgettable night at the theater, but the cogency and cunning of Hampton’s dramatic adaptation was lost in the bravura. Critics who stopped to think about the play were not impressed by the dramatic urgency of the lines, some of them taken directly from the Freud/Jung correspondence, and wondered what to make of the argument between the two men today when the theories of both have long since been discredited by serious psychologists. Obviously, the play as performed conveyed no sense of the cultural sig-nificance of Freud and Jung, who may not have been scientists but who did transform the 20th century’s understanding of the human condition.


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