Earlier this year I faced off in an online debate about whether or not the discipline of cultural studies is necessary. I said no—arguing that the ideas covered in that discipline would be more constructively addressed in more scientifically rigorous fields—but my coblogger Becky Lang said yes. “I wanted to study psychoanalysis and read Freud and Jung, but many psychology teachers laugh at the mention of their names. […] Someone has to teach kids that Freud did more than smoke cigars and make dirty jokes.”
That someone turns out to be director David Cronenberg, whose new movie A Dangerous Method translates John Kerr’s 1993 nonfiction book A Most Dangerous Method into screen entertainment via screenwriter Christopher Hampton, adapting his 2002 stage play The Talking Cure.
The film traces the relationship between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). The trick Hampton tries to pull off is to link the pair’s academic debate to their personal relationship. Freud remains steadfast in his materialism and his focus on sex as the key driver of the human psyche, while Jung wants to broaden the discussion to include supernatural phenomena and other non-sexual motives. Jung’s view that there are higher—or at least other—motives than sex is put to the test when he finds himself being tempted into an affair with his patient Sabin Spielrein (Keira Knightley, chewing heartily on a Russian accent).
Turning the birth of psychoanalysis into a movie would seem to make perfect sense: while Freud’s ideas about human motivation have been eclipsed as psychologists have opened the black box of the brain with increasingly sophisticated (and, indeed, less dangerous) methods, Freudian thought still provides the master blueprint for characters’ motivations in most movies, plays, and stories. Guilt, lust, symbolism, dreams: we attribute more power to these things than they actually have in our lives, which is why it makes sense when characters behave as though they’re textbook studies from Freud’s notebook. Show me any but the most avant-garde movie, and I’ll show you the tell-me-about-your-mother moment.
Cronenberg starts strong, with Knightley being ushered kicking and screaming into the custody of Fassbender, who’s a partisan of Freud’s then-revolutionary idea that many psychological disorders can be effectively treated by a hands-off “talking cure.” As Knightley settles down, though, so does the film, which ultimately becomes little more than an extended pissing match between the two Significant Analysts in her life.
Having earned a Master’s in psychology via classes like “A Radical Geography of the Psyche,” I enjoyed the stroll (with much literal strolling) through intellectual history, but fundamentally, A Dangerous Method falters because it doesn’t seem to know what it really thinks about these peculiar characters and their once radical, now outdated ideas about human nature.
Freud is accurately depicted as a genius whose rhetorical skill worked against his own legacy when he talked himself and others into accepting dubious ideas about the workings of the mind, while the forward-thinking Jung points the way past Freud intellectually even while his cock seems to be vindicating his mentor’s resolute focus on the idea that a cigar is rarely just a cigar. What are we to believe? The film doesn’t tell us, which is perhaps meant as an acknowledgment of psychological subtlety but ends up feeling more like a cop-out.
For a film full of turgid dialogue and heaving bosoms (well, one modest bosom that heaves repeatedly), A Dangerous Method is strangely static when it comes to character development. When all is said and done, Freud is repentent, Jung is still torn between his ego and his libido, and Spielrein—having been efficiently and completely cured, by Jung’s suggestion that it’s okay to like it a little rough, of the long-term psychological effects of incestual molestation—gets on with her own successful career in psychoanalysis.
That doesn’t make for a very good story—but then, this isn’t a work of Freud-flavored fiction. This is real life.