A Dangerous Method

True to historic facts, Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method holds some interesting surprises – naturally, considering the director and the actors’ work on the subtlest staging details. (See the Cronenberg interview).
Some of those details lie on the more comical side, such as Freud’s character.
So far I had imagined Freud in different ways, but the idea of a Viennese cigar-munching Godfather had not occurred to me. Cronenberg’s Freud comes across as a slow talking, sometimes cynical, sometimes despicable plotter of institutional schemes. A hard-nosed professional subversive who seems impressed only by the ever-growing anti-semitism that besieges him and his new science. And when Jung finally falls out of favour, the only sense that comes to Freud’s mind is his designated successor’s “Aryanism”.
With Spielrein and Jung’s respective characters, things immediately seem to run deeper. The first time we see Spielrein, she’s literally howling mad. But she seems to get better with an astonishing speed, each and every time Jung addresses her like a normal human being. One can only imagine what it must have been like in the asylums of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But Bleuler and Jung’s Burghölzli looks very much like the Anti-Psychiatrist‘s dream. Patients, not inmates, are being cared for, offered interesting humane work and most of all are treated like fully responsible grown-ups. In this utopian castle, Spielrein not only turns out to be the gifted psychologist that Jung suspected right away, but she also learns how to accept and enjoy her sexual fantasies. Although, with some practical help of her therapist, who does not show the same ease towards his own fantasies.
Young doctor Jung is obviously on a roll. Stop-watch in one hand, standardized association questionnaires in the other, he probes his millionaire wife’s soul in the most rational ways while at the same time waiting for the birth of their daughter. Were it not for his own sexual temptations, nothing would hinder his most scientific train of thought. But then again, the doctor’s sexuality sees things from a less comfortable angle. Spielrein seems to catch Jung’s personal problem perfectly with her own sexual theory which, as it happens, is also opposed to Freud’s rationalism.
Sex implies letting go of the ego’s control and with it the feeling of one’s personal identity. This is most enjoyable on one side, but just as scary on the other. Transgressing the boundaries of the ego – we’re just one step away from Georges Bataille – sexuality is inherently anxiety inducing. Seen from this angle, Freud’s solution would be to play the ego – sublimation, culture and science – against the disruptive force of sexuality. 
And Jung’s?
Here comes the problem: Jung wants it all but cannot get out of the deep psychological conflict it provokes in him. And since both orderly marriage and wild fantasies only exist as an exclusive alternative, Jung sees his conflict appear and impose itself in the more sublimated parts of his life as well. Divided between a wife and changing mistresses, between rationality and oceanic feelings, between Freud’s controlling and the appeal of the mystical, Jung himself becomes the most convincing illustration of his former patient’s theory. Attracted by what his conscience cannot allow him, Jung tries what most of us do: get his permission on the outside, try to convince others that transgressions are no so reprehensible after all.
Following Cronenberg’s characters, this might be one of the important hidden meanings behind Freud’s and Jung’s quarrel over ‘singing bookshelves’. What Jung expects his spiritual father to accept – officially, the transgression of scientific reserve towards the ecstatic realm of the oceanic – might first of all have to do with the acceptance of accessing and enjoying the irrational, culturally reproved joys of a different sexuality. This would explain why Otto Gross’s amusing pondering on sexuality immediately hits Jung as profound and convincing. Sexuality could cease to be the problem, as in Freud’s outlook, and start becoming the solution to all problems. Would Jung have been able to fully embrace this point of view, he might have joined with Gross and Reich. Both of whom, it might be said, were not better off for playing it the other way round: the healing power of the orgasm seems to have been largely overrated.
Thus Freud’s lack of understanding – in this case at least, he did not treat Jung as a patient – might very well have contributed to fix and perpetuate Jung’s struggle for sexual freedom in the realm of the intellectual. Jung continues having ‘shameful’ hidden affairs, but fights for his spiritual entanglements out in the open. As Spielrein might have put it: that’s how you become a great theorist in psychology.


  1. TS- my first reaction to the film was: Jung’s beyond-the-call-of-duty fascination for Spielrein wasn’t made plausible. And why would he end up, professionally or intellectually, in her wake? Simpler put: why would he fall for her?

    Reading your blog entry, I now recognize that Spielrein’s spell is all over the film. It gives rhythm to the film in the sense that it remains oddly unspoken but directs all proceedings. It is the “unconscious” mover of the film. It provoked me personally by its “absence” (and I need to ask myself why – always the most important question a cinema goer has to ask: why am I rejecting this, why am I trying to judge this aesthetically when it’s an e-motional experience, why am I blind, or why do I fantasize things into films that aren’t there?).

    You write “Jung himself becomes the most convincing illustration of his former patient's theory”: in the end, Spielrein becomes the genie or the author of this film, whose central figure Jung believes himself to be.

    In this respect, Freud reminding Spielrein of her Jewishness (or her "Jewish" sexuality), in order to thwart her, is most revealing. He puts his finger on her spell by calling it problematic, a handicap (for whom?)

    Sexuality, as loss of ego, (or erotism, per Bataille) becomes the medium in which Freud and Spielrein play out their (mimetic) rivalry.

    Very quickly, then, as characters – as egoless people – Freud, Spielrein and Jung can become Gangsterboss, witch doctor, femme fatale, witch, Siegfried, etc and Cronenberg taps into the dynamic of the gangster film, the film noir or the horror film.

    • Thanks for your comment Luc. It did make me think of what Cronenberg himself acknowledges in his interview with Amy Taubin. In Taubin's words Sabina Spielrein is "the point of identification in the movie." At the beginning I rather identified with Jung. A feeling I lost the further things went and I switched to Spielrein later. This shift came about with the sense that somehow, she had it right. Her explanation of sexuality seemed the most pertinent for what was happening to her and to those around her. It also seemed to be the most obvious and the most simple ("No ghosts need apply"), since it recurs neither to metaphysical mysteries , nor to sophisticated public relation strategies. In other words, I had the feeling Spielrein was at the same time representing the historic Spielrein and Cronenberg's perspective on his characters.

      Which brings me to the "unconscious mover". I hadn't thought of it in that way, but I could use it in a slightly different way, as the invisible mover. And I would not put that mover in the story itself. In my view, Spielrein would be the character through which Cronenberg sees Jung and Freud; well and some others…

      Your other point seems compelling: to stick to the narration itself, Jung's immediate attraction to Spielrein seems indeed difficult to understand. It becomes more obvious with the hindsight brought about by Spielrein. So in a very broad sense, the storyline resembles the start of a psychoanalytic process: first things keep happening, then you're in a mess, and finally you start wondering what got you there and what "there" might be all about.

  2. First off, TS: I like you referring to your work as an analyst and thinking it through the film. I think that’s a very fertile exercise, as necessary as durcharbeiten in a session, and as personally revealing.

    I also take to the idea of looking for simplicity – as you quote “no ghosts need apply”. We get a notion that Jung’s mysticism or Freud’s public relation strategies are again about something else – something more basic. (And Spielrein’s position suggests some explanations.) The pathos that the actors generate – Jung’s eyes, for instance, or Freud’s physical reactions to what Jung is not capable of discussing (his wife’s wealth, his affair with Spielrein, the Protestant-Siegfried-Jew issue, etc) – that pathos deepens the film to a point where there is no bottom to the affair anymore. Is that bottomlessness – it’s the new basic – a representation of “wishes”, of “sexuality”?

    So we’re quickly in a “mess”, as you write. And an aesthetic theorist might also call that mess “mimesis”, I think.

    The expression “point of identification in the movie” the Film Comment interviewer (Amy Taubin) uses suggests an anchor in an unfamiliar situation, in this case beyond (“in the movie”) simply watching this mad woman act out. What is so uncomfortable (beyond hysteria as pictured, or beyond the familiar – the film star – distorted or rendered more human) that we need identification ? The back and forth between Jung and Freud, the invention of an exploration of self via speech that the film shows, two males going at each other, sexuality – or all the information the film leaves out?

    More questions: why does she (or do we?) need such comfort here? Does she think Spielrein’s is the saner perspective, the more familiar one? When two men go at each other, an involved woman can provide a unique perspective – but is this more than another way of being one character in a play?

    Here is the whole passage:

    <p style="padding-left: 30px;">(Amy Taubin) For me, she [Keira Knightley/Spielrein]’s the point of identification in the movie.
 (Cronenberg) Yes.

    <p style="padding-left: 30px;">(Amy Taubin) She was immediately that for me because of what happens in her body and her face in those early scenes. I think you connect kinetically with her, solar plexus to solar plexus. Or you don’t, I guess, and then it must be very alienating.

    At the same time, I must say, I also get a sense of contemporary bias in the idea that Spielrein has this privileged, “correct” or correcting position – her madness as actually a manner of knowing better, and if her theatricality makes you feel uncomfortable or alienated, well that’s may be because you can’t handle something about that kind of display. (In that respect a Cinéaste interview with Cronenberg – Richard Porton in the latest issue – vol. XXXVII No. 1 – goes further in his introduction to the interview by claiming that hysteria is a “malaise no longer recognized as legitimate by the psychiatric profession” and asking Cronenberg: “it’s strange that this was a quintessential Victorian illness that seems to have more or less disappeared” to which he replies “Yes, and since the word hysteria comes from the Greek word for uterus, it was basically thought to be a woman’s disease.” Cronenberg knows a lot about psychoanalysis – as these interviews in Film Comment, Cinéaste, Positif, etc make clear – and his “yes” is, I think, a conversational one, not one of acquiescence.)

    In any case: what happens if you watch the film without looking for such identification?

    You say: Cronenberg “sees” Jung and Freud through Spielrein. I find that intriguing, not only because you are an analyst (so the question is: how do you see characters?) but also since trying to identify the director’s “vision” is tough, as films work by leaving most out, by editing, much more, I think, than by choosing a particular frame or colors or music. This film in particular works through elimination (hence my sense that we lack an “Einfühlung” into Jung’s sexual interest in Spielrein). Or in the case of my feeling of Cronenberg’s other films, the word would be cutting.

    The question then becomes : who is Cronenberg? I’m not sure whether Cronenberg’s is ever a point of view we could identify, or identify with. So, in that sense, I like your idea – as it approaches again the idea of a mess we are in.

    Finally: the “invisible mover “ – not in the story itself – you identify (a God reference): what is not visible in a film?

  3. Très intéressant "A Dangerous Method". Dommage que les proportions entre Freud et Jung ne soient pas respectées. En fait, Jung était quelques vingt centimètres plus grand que Freud. Dommage encore que le metteur en scène n'ait pas jugé bon de choisir une femme aussi belle que l'a été en vérité Sabina Spielrein. Petite note : la discussion au sujet du Pharon n'a pas eu lieu entre Freud et Jung, mais entre Freud et Abraham. Je ne crois pas que Sabina Spielrein ait érotisé son masochisme tel que le filme le montre. Mais, enfin tout le reste est très pédagogique et correct. Vivement conseillé.

  4. Merci pour cet article et ces commentaires. Il me semble quand même frappant de lire sous la plume de TS: "Spielrein would be the character through which Cronenberg sees Jung and Freud", car si c'est vrai, c'est surtout l'inverse: "Jung would be the character through which Cronenberg sees Spielrein". En effet, c'est quand même surtout et avant tout un très beau film sur une hystérique qui parvient, par le secours de la psychanalyse, à vivre d'une façon épanouie la sexualité qui la minait tout en conservant son caractère intense et passionné. C'est le personnage le plus incarné et le plus vivant. Un très beau portrait de femme, et un très beau portrait de la Psychanalyse.


  5. Well, I believe that in as much as Cronenberg is an artist, he sees Jung as he believes Sabina would have seen him + what he himself sees of Jung,&nbsp; he sees Sabina as he believes Jung would have seen her + how he himself sees Jung. And so on.

    Cronenberg is very kind to Jung and Freud who were, both of them, absolutely odious about Sabina.

    The description of her arrival at the Hospital does not correspond very much to what we can read in the Hospital files. It s more a summary than a real creation based on these files which I am reading now and are very precise. In fact, the film doesn&#039;t seem to deal very much on Sabina illness and recovery and she <em>was</em> very ill when she first arrived at the Hospital. She presented some features Anna Freud will present later and which are described on Freud&#039;s paper &quot;A child is beaten&quot;. Very interesting.

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