Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Dangerous Method

April 1, 2012

A Dangerous Method (2011) ***
Directed by David Cronenberg

My tweet:

A Dangerous Method (2011)- Limited and on-the-nose historical adaptation. Stagey, but works because of a handful of good moments. *** of 5

Other thoughts:

Recently, I've become hooked on the late-90's/early 2000's television show Frasier about a radio psychiatrist and his practicing psychiatrist brother Niles. The show is truly brilliant and is among the best written shows I've seen. However, I am amused how incorrect the writers are when dealing with psychiatry. Niles is more of a therapist, when, in reality, psychiatrists really only prescribe medication. It's not too often that they do psychotherapy with their patients. If they did, it would be silly to go through medical school only to do something which simply requires a Masters degree.

The reason I bring this up is the fact that it was mentioned on Frasier that the title character is a Freudian while Niles is a Jungian. This, mixed with some study of Freud and someone mentioning one time that Jung was big on dream interpretation, pretty much comprises my only knowledge about these two pioneers of modern psychotherapy. Thus, I was hoping that A Dangerous Method would enlighten me to these two historical icons of the twentieth century.

I am happy to report that it does a satisfactory job of teaching its viewer about the rocky relationship between the two. In a terse letter to Freud towards the end of their friendship, Jung calls him a "father figure." That warm relationship eventually breaks due to undeniable tension which can't be repressed. The film emphasizes the irony of the fact that Freud was the discoverer of the Oedipal Complex, which states that a child is afraid of his father because he is in love with his mother and fears castration by his father due to the father's jealousy. There is a woman that Jung loves, and Freud does become jealous of Jung's breakthroughs with her. This does ultimately cause anxiety and tension. Freud analogously experiences his own theory returning to haunt him.

Keira Knightly plays this very woman, whose name is Sabina Spielrein. We first see her forced inside a mental institution. She obviously suffers from a serious mental illness, which manifests itself in brutal ticks and contortions. Alongside the physical manifestations of her illness, she's also paranoid, manic and delusional. Dr. Carl Jung, played well by the talented Michael Fassbender, is a young admirer of Freud who decides to use psychotherapy (which he prefers to call psychtherapy) to heal Sabina. A few years pass, and Sabina improves so much that she's able to enroll in medical school. As Jung continues his work, he starts to feel frustrated with Freud's insistence that our sexuality defines who we are, and there is nothing that we can do about it.

Jung's frustrations increase when he becomes friends with Freud. He doesn't want to betray his friendship and Freud's reputation by embracing his own differing conclusions. Further, he sees the dangers of Freudian theory taken to the extreme when he meets another psychiatrist named Otto Gross, played by Vincent Cassel. Gross' theory is that we shouldn't repress our sexuality at all. He practices this philosophy with his patients whom he often engages in sexual relations. Perhaps because of Freud, Gross or both, Jung begins an affair with Sabina, which goes against his ethics as a doctor. He begins to crumble with self-loathing, which isn't helped by the fact that Sabina has severe sexual dysfunctions due to her sadistic father. Because of his feelings for Sabina, who becomes a distinguished scholar of psychiatry on her own, ultimately studying under Freud, Jung discovers who he is, allowing him to break from Freud and progress with his scholarship and the conclusions which result.

Another none-too-subtle irony with this whole ordeal is that Jung, who rejects that sexuality is what is controlling us at our most base level, discovers his own identity by engaging in a very animalistic sexual relationship. His own life gives credence to Freud's theories. These analogies are among the aspects of A Dangerous Method which don't work. Everything is so literally played out, not allowing for any nuance beyond these analogies which are shoved in audiences' faces. For a movie about psychology, this film teaches nothing about the human condition. Instead, it functions with Jungian and Freudian theories in the background. Because this movie exists within these semi-arcane schools of thought, any themes that could emerge become stifled.

What does work is the history when it is actually presented. The character of Sabina is an interesting one. The debates between Freud, played as well as he could by a miscast Viggo Mortenson, and Jung about the psychology of the human person are well-written and thought-provoking. Despite the fact that we're only presented material which would be taught in the first two weeks of an Introduction to Psychology undergraduate course, Freud's focus on the past contrasts clearly with Jung's focus on the present and future. I personally find psychology fascinating, and it's these scenes that allowed me to engage with this material.

Cronenberg usually directs ultra-violent films such as A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and The Fly. This costume drama seems like a departure for him, but there are a handful of brutally uncomfortable scenes that could only come from Cronenberg's dark vision. A Dangerous Mind is adapted from a play and a book, and it's these scenes which frees it from its otherwise stagy feel. That being said, the scenes are gratuitous and feel like they belong in another movie altogether. Another flaw is Keira Knightly's performance. She has charisma, but she overacts all the way through, employing a brutal Russian accent which grates on the nerves.

Psychology enthusiasts will most likely somewhat meet this movie on its own terms. I fear that everyone else will find A Dangerous Method frustrating and unsatisfying. Though I could never find out the answer, I'd bet money that Frasier and Niles would scoff at the simplicity with which the early history of psychoanalysis is dealt. On the other hand, Freud and Jung wouldn't recognize anything they saw on Frasier regarding the subject they pioneered.