Scene on Film: ‘A Dangerous Method’

January 26, 2012

By Joan Ellis

Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender in “A Dangerous Method.”

A movie that tackles a controversial aspect of historical figures takes a big risk. A Dangerous Method takes the risk but succeeds primarily in making us curious about the back story. Did Carl Jung, acknowledged heir to Freud’s experiments in psychoanalysis, really violate the tenets of his profession by repeatedly indulging in a sadomasochistic sexual relationship with a patient? How did Freud the teacher and Jung the student lose both their friendship and their professional relationship? Is it remotely possible that the patient could simultaneously have been Jung’s patient/lover and a candidate for a medical degree not long after she was carried in hysterics into a mental hospital?

This movie offers us one version of the answers, but there is a problem there. All of us know of Freud’s insistence that all human behavior is rooted in sexuality. We know of Jung’s insistence that the roots of trouble are embedded in dreams. But the average person – of whom I am one – doesn’t necessarily know much about either man. One can say, “Oh, that was a fine film about FDR,” for instance, because we know his face, his expressions, his deeds, and his philosophy. But Freud and Jung, famed as they are as the fathers of psychoanalysis, remain cloudy as human beings. And so we must judge the movie on its merits alone without pretending to know more than we do.

Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly) is carried screaming and contorted into a mental hospital. She is visited by Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) who urges her to go deeply into her father’s abusive behavior – which she does and which she says, with some shame, excited her. The staid and formal Jung decides in short order to become the medium through which she can relive that excitement.

Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Jung engage in a continuing exchange about their experiments in the motivations that underlie human behavior. Jung denies to Freud his involvement with Spielrein. When Spielrein becomes Freud’s patient, the friendship between the two men ends in anger.

Lacking any real mental images of these characters, we impute to them the personalities the actors give them, and in all cases, the result is unpleasant. Jung’s rich wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) is her husband’s stay-at-home baby factory. Keira Knightly’s failed attempt at a Russian/German accent undermines her credibility. Michael Fassbender gives no hint of whether Jung is troubled by his own transgressions, and Viggo Mortensen’s Freud seems as detached from his own emotions as Jung. This movie comes across as a curiously truncated imagining of two men who were giants in their field. Sabina Spielrein, who became an eminent analyst after returning to Russia, leaves us grateful that we never knew her. If you go, you will surely love the costumes and the filming in Vienna and Germany. As for the story, it is an interesting but thoroughly unpleasant and incomplete introduction to two important historical figures.

Rated R



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