A Dangerous Method

Jake over at Not Just Movies notes that much of this film occurs in bright daylight -- no accident. Like A History of Violence, Cronenberg is interested in the socially unacceptable and repressed impulses that lurk beneath ordered normality. Jung and his wife Emma live in meticulously managed opulence. Their conversation is the height of good breeding. And a bit boring. Keira Knightley's Sabina arrives to shake things up.

Knightley has proven that she could do educated, steely and ambitious in films such as Pride & Prejudice and Atonement (let's forget Pirates for now). Here she does all of that as well, but first she has to twist and wrack and scream and distort her features, and she succeeds in being both sympathetic and unsettling. Her confession scene (no other word for it) is dynamite stuff, the camera slowly drifting from two shot to centre on her face as she reaches some kind of apotheosis. We really should forget Pirates.

The poster for the film suggests that Sabina is caught between Freud and Jung. She is, in that her intellectual debt to the former clashes with her personal relationship with the latter. But I think the more interesting entanglement is Jung's -- how he drifts away from his mentor and father figure under the influence of Sabina, and the instigator of their affair, Otto Gross. Freud's method retained the belief that the unconscious required restraint, and that neurosis develops when the regular process of repression was disrupted. Mortensen plays him as fastidiously careful. He is mindful of all enemies to the cause of psychoanalysis, he does not reveal his dreams to Jung. Gross, on the other hand, is a libertine -- pleasure is a simple good and people should be free to seize it. Sabina, while never meeting Gross, finds that sexual exploration is the route towards serenity and transformation, although she prefers to elucidate her experience using Freud's terminology.

The root of Sabina's neurosis was sexual, but Jung thinks Freud's fixation with sex is counterproductive. He is also dissatisfied with Freud's complacency in simply helping his patients cope with the world as it is. He has wacky ideas about the mind's powers over matter and time.  The unconscious is much more vital than Freud thought -- a pathway to transcendence, rather than a threat to civilization.

A dangerous method? I guess the film's point is that the 'talking cure' for mental disorders can contaminate the person who cures, just as much as physical cures for contagious disease. Madness is catching. We are told at the end of the film that the onrush of war killed Sabina and exiled Freud. For Jung, it spurred a mental breakdown, from which he emerged to become the preeminent psychologist of his day. He died in comfort. The film suggests that the breakdown was partly personal, Jung losing Sabina forever. But perhaps it is also intellectual -- the mass slaughter showing that Freud's emphasis on repressing animal instincts was right all along.

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