The movie is ostensibly a character study of Jung via his relationships with Freud and Spielrein.

A Dangerous Method is sort of unfriendly to people who don’t have a significant amount of background knowledge about the people and the dynamics involved. I’m here to say that’s fine and well, though, since the film isn’t really so much about the specific events or details of Jung or Freud’s friendship and theories so much as it is about, and subtly so, their psychology. So a movie about psychologists which tends toward the psychological, pretty straightforward when you think about it that way. On that level, the film functions as an incredibly deft character study of Carl Jung that places its dramatic propulsion in the performances of the three leads and complete trusts the audience to read between the lines and find the psychology behind small scenes that might seem extraneous on the surface. In other words, A Dangerous Method is a movie for thinkers. Especially ones with an interest in human behavior and the more troubling questions of sexuality, repression, manipulation, etc.

The film is set around Jung’s (apparent) formative years. I don’t know much about the man but the film portrays him as a fairly impressionable. This might be dramatic license meant to increase the thematic weight of theories that conflict with and eventually shape his own. As much as A Dangerous Method is a movie about characters and their conflicts and passions on a psychological level, it also presents the audience with a discourse on psychological theories and how they pertain to sexuality, morality, and so on. Jung can’t help but be influenced by the points of view of Spielrein, Gross, and Freud and each of these characters (with the exception of Gross) gets multiple scenes where it’s clear that Jung is slowly becoming less impressionable and more possessed of his own theories. The relationships he has with Spielrein and Freud are fraught with other considerations, though, which seems to be the thread that Cronenberg and his writers are most interested in.

Knightley walks a difficult line between inspiring revulsion and sympathy in her performance. There’s a charisma in the chaos that makes it compelling to watch even as it makes you uncomfortable.

As Sabine Spielrein, Keira Knightely pretty well walks away with the movie. Her performance is transformative in an unsubtle way achieved via facial tics, slightly “off” mannerisms, and so on. Her contortions and body language when she’s in the throws of her neuroses are perfectly uncomfortable and representative of the subtler kind of “body horror” that Cronenberg is most interested in these days. Spielrein evolves parallel to Jung but represents a type of liberation he basically represses; this makes her a catalyst for his evolution and the sounding board for a particular point of view about sexuality, monogamy, and repression. One that is far less self-destructive than that of Gross (Vincent Cassel), a vital component that makes her charms more seductive for Jung than his in spite of the similarity of content: anti-monogamy, liberation from repression, adherence to the pleasure principle.

In some ways, she represents the liberated hedonism of an unrepressed personality and this aligns with Jung’s investigation only until she ends up siding with Freud in the overall schema of repressed sexuality. Her speech about the “self-annihilating impulse of sexuality” is one of the best in the film not only because it encapsulates the high-level discourse running through the movie but also because it slides something about the subtext into place: Spielrein has become a bit of game-piece between Freud and Jung and the movie clearly wants us to see that contention over all she represents and has to contribute to their shared field is ultimately what drives them apart.

Viiiiiiggggggoooooooo!

The dialectical scenes between Freud (Viggo Mortenson) and Jung (Michael Fassbender) are the highlight of the film beyond Keira Knightley’s performance. Not only are both actors always awesome forever, they are both bringing layers of pathos to their interactions. The scenes drip with this stuff to the extent that what they’re saying isn’t important, it’s not the real story of the film. The subtext is everything. Freud and Jung are playing out the patricidal saga that is part of their narrative for human behavior. They both see Freud as a father figure and the conflict between them is iconic to that. The centrality of this theme is resonant not only because it’s one of the classic sagas of human psychology and therefore resonant in any story that includes it, but also because it’s these guys who pointed out that resonance in the first place by examining the role of mythology in our psychology.

None of this stuff is difficult to miss or played close to the vest by the film but nor is it stated as such. It’s left to the audience to make these connections and to trace the subtext of the film from scene to scene. That this emerges so powerfully makes the film something of a marvel. It’s difficult to maintain subtext when you’re trying to keep it subtext, necessitating obfuscation by the trappings of drama and plot. The romance between Jung and Spielrein, for instance, or the academic differences between Jung and Freud.

Freud is poorer than Jung and signals his dissatisfaction with his lot and potentially the large amount of influence the lifestyle disparity between these two affects how Freud thinks of and treats Jung.

It’s clear that Jung evolves into his “own man” by the end of the film but this doesn’t mean he has replaced Freud and symbolically killed his father to become patriarch in his own right. Rather, Jung is in the throes of a nervous breakdown and Freud is still kicking in spite of some flirtation with death.

This isn’t a very satisfying end for Jung in terms of your typical heroic narrative but it’s also completely in keeping with the themes of these peoples’ theories. If we develop neuroses because we’re unable to play out psychological narratives due to repression or whatever, it’s no wonder that some failure to be Zeus is at the root of where the film leaves Jung. So like, Freud would probably say that Jung’s purest desire is to kill and replace him but repression leaves him just waiting for Freud to die so he can complete his journey and Freud just won’t comply and thus: neuroses!

Or maybe I’m putting too much traction in my very basic understanding of Freudian theories and their analytical value for this film. In any event, it illustrates why A Dangerous Method is interesting and certainly why it’s the kind of thing people often call an “intelligent film”. It’s also a film that is highly critical of its subjects while also totally humanizing and empathizing with them, Freud especially if only because he’s not only this monolithic personality to us 100 years later but also to his contemporaries which makes that quality part of the story of A Dangerous Method.

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