As Hampton has crafted Jung and as Fassbender plays him, his main quality is his innate decency. There is no trace of the mystical leaning that already preoccupied Jung; if anything, he is the archetype of the good doctor and budding scientist. From his first friendly encounter with Spielrein, he treats her as an equal, with consideration and respect. She responds to that decency at least as much as to the erotic longings released by the abreaction of her masochistic fixation. Those in the profession will recognize that Hampton’s Jung is trying to create what is called today a therapeutic alliance. The movie foregrounds the perverse contents of the therapy; when as a child her father spanked her naked bottom, she became sexually excited. That is the perverse core of her neurotic conflict, revulsion and excitement are almost inextricably linked in her psyche. Painful humiliation is her aphrodisiac, and she despises herself for this. As often happens in actual therapy, as she abreacts all this to the supportive and friendly Jung, she falls madly in love with him.
It was during this honeymoon stage of the therapy that Jung began his friendly—indeed adulatory—correspondence with Freud. Meanwhile, Speilrein was doing everything in her power to seduce Jung, and the thoroughly decent Swiss Protestant resisted. He was married and believed in monogamy. He had a very wealthy and very doting wife who seemed to understand better than he what was happening to him in his treatment of Spielrein.
In Christopher Hampton’s telling, what sends Jung over the edge is the arrival of a new patient, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), sent to him by Freud. Gross has a place in the official history of psychoanalysis. The son of Austria’s most famous criminologist, he was a brilliant physician and one of the first psychoanalysts. Yet he was hopelessly addicted to narcotics. Freud sent him to the Burghölzli in the hope that he could break his addiction and come back to Vienna for analysis with him. Gross had already been practicing analysis and, as he tells Jung, has been sleeping with all his women patients. His basic premise is that all repression is bad and that Freud is obsessed with sex because he is not getting any.
Hampton, preserving Jung’s good guy Adam before the fall persona, introduces Gross as the serpent in the garden. Gross was radical in his views about sexual repression, but he was also a political radical—an anarchist. Hampton gives us Gross with the politics left out; but in their therapeutic sessions, he is more Jung’s doctor than his patient, and when he elopes from the hospital he leaves a written prescription: sex with Spielrein. And Jung takes the medicine.
There is something childlike about Fassbender’s Jung that keeps his white hat in place even as he is enacting Spielrein’s masturbation fantasy and spanking her buttocks. Having sex with a patient is a serious ethical violation, destructive if not ruinous to the patient akin to the damage caused by incest. That is the prevailing view of contemporary experts. But Spielrein prospers, decides to go to medical school, and becomes a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst. She is unhappy only when Jung breaks off the affair. For the general audience, Jung’s innocent childlike persona and her aggressive sexual overtures take most of the sting out of the offense. There is, I believe, a deeper argument also being made by Hampton against the certitude of contemporary experts.