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Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Dangerous Method

Nearly all the posters of "A Dangerous Method" arranges Keira Knightly's Sabina Spielrein in the middle, between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), a transparent --- and entirely wrong --- characterization of the movie's theme. She is not the woman that came between Jung and Freud and broke up their friendship.

David Cronenberg, who is Canadian by nationality, makes a subtle but conscious case for the Jewishness of psychoanalysis. The riff between Freud and Jung, the movie seems to argue, is largely an ethnic and class divide manifest in academic disagreement.

Buried beneath this ethnic argument is the suggestion that it is no accident that psychoanalysis originated and flourished in the repressive Victorian era in Europe among Jewish medical men (and remain dominated by Jewish psychiatrists to this day), that the permissive and liberating philosophy of psychoanalysis is inherently Jewish, and that Protestants are instinctively unable to embrace psychoanalysis, even an open-minded, intelligent Protestant like Jung.

I don't know enough about Judaism and Jewish culture to judge whether the hypothesis is credible. It probably is to some extent. I do have doubts about whether ethnic and class difference played a large role in Jung's feud with Freud. The movie implies that Jung is troubled by Freud's emphasis on sex as the underlying motivation for nearly all human behaviors and unconsciousness and his implied support of socially unacceptable behaviors (e.g., infidelity), because Jung is sexually repressed and deeply conflicted. One scene in particularly clearly establishes that Freud and Spielrein understand it (the central role of sex) and each other, because they are Jews and therefore not as plagued by sex-related guilt and conflicts as Jung is.

I don't know enough about Jung and his work to judge whether this characterization is real. Again, it may be true to some extent. However, the very fact that Cronenberg is suggesting that the riff between Jung and Freud is rooted in social class, religious, and cultural differences that neither of them has any control over happens to support Jung's theory that cultural heritage heavily influences people's behaviors and unconscious. Isn't it ironic?

I wonder whether Cronenberg has realized this irony. Although Jung in this movie is portrayed as being repressed and unable to fully accept the legitimacy of sexual urges, while Freud is portrayed as being more "liberated" or knowing of the human nature and therefore perhaps "more correct," the movie itself indirectly acknowledges that Jung is just as correct if not more so by tracing his behaviors and decisions to his Protestant heritage.


Nevertheless, it would be an injustice to suggest that the movie blames the breakup between Freud and Jung entirely on the Jewish-Protestant and class divide. It fully acknowledges the Oedipal nature of their relationship and conflict. I don't know whether all men want to marry his mother, but it seems pretty universal that all men must murder his father to become his own person. The more intimate and affectionate the relationship, the more the son has to kill of the father (even if symbolically) to become an adult.

The intimacy of mentor-disciple relationship is shown is something of a double layer in the movie: The Jung-Spielrein relationship is a parallel to the Freud-Jung relationship. However, the daughter does not need to murder her father to become independent. She separates from him and her sexual desire for him, and becomes her own person in a process that is perhaps as painful as the patricide. The movie makes both types of separation perfectly clear and somewhat symmetrical.

Although the movie is heavily didactic with long segments of dialog, Cronenberg's visual language remains ripe with meaning and suggestions. Note the deep-focus shot in the scene above, which keeps both Freud's face in the foreground and Jung's face in the background clear. Similar view is used throughout the movie to keep the patient and the psychoanalyst, who do not face each other, in the same frame with the same clarity. Perhaps he is suggesting that the process of psychotherapy is bidirectional and affects not only the patient.

The acting is interesting across the board. Knightly is fine in the hysterical, manic scenes and slightly laborious in the later "normal" scenes. Fassbender, interestingly, has done two movies and sexual urges and conflicts around the same time. The second movie, "Shame," seems almost like a rebuff to the line in "A Dangerous Method" that sex is the only reliable pleasure for everyone.

Mortensen takes the cake for the best, but also the subtlest, performance in the movie. While maintaining a detached, controlled, dominant, almost manipulative presence, he drops a number of hints of vulnerability and genuine affection.

Jung's wife, played by Sarah Gadon, is probably a little underdeveloped compared with the 3 main characters. Nevertheless, I am fascinated by the treatment of this character and the movie's exploration of gender and power in general. She is clearly distressed by Jung's insatiable sexual appetite (depicted through his hearty appetite on the dining table), but she has to make do, even though she is the financial pillar of the family. So, perhaps, she is a counterpoint to the acceptance and indulgence of primal sexual urges. Possessiveness and exclusivity are also a human instinct. When we love someone we want the most we can wring out of that person. We don't want to share and dilute. Or perhaps some but not all of us craves the exclusivity. That is an instinct, not social regulation or repression. Obviously, one man's freedom is another woman's suffering, even if you take society out of the equation.

As such we enter a territory not thoroughly explored by Freud. Social restrictions on individual behaviors have obviously brought on neuroses and conflicts and mental dysfunctions, but they also serve the purpose of keep us living together in close proximity without cutting each other's throat. Such is the human condition. There is never a place where one's own needs and others' needs can exist in absolute and blissful freedom and harmony. We always have to struggle with conflicts and competing needs between ourselves and others, and hope for a tolerable compromise. (People do cut each other's throat every day in the world, after all.)

If I have to grossly simplify the movie's plot, it would not be a love triangle in which Spielrein breaks up Freud and Jung's relationship, but rather a love triangle in which both Freud and Spielrein love Jung, but the damned Protestant just doesn't get it.

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