Thursday, December 29, 2011

Hidden Thoughts and Desires

"Sometimes you have to do something terrible to go on living." - Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender)

That terrible thing is one of the central points of A Dangerous Method, the engrossing new film from David Cronenberg. Pitting doctor against patient and doctor against doctor, the film touches upon hurt feelings, passions and hidden thoughts that eventually must emerge from the film's main characters if they indeed are to continue to face life and all its challenges.

The film deals with the case of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a troubled young woman suffering from neuroses, who seeks a cure from Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). The time is 1904 and the setting is Jung's office in a lovely forest in Switzerland. As Jung initially questions Spielrein, she stammers and thrusts her jaw forward, as though possessed by the devil. Clearly puzzled by her physical mannerisms as well as her inner demons, Jung decides that he will use the newly developed "talking cure"- the foundation of psychoanalytic treatment at the time, as created by Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) - as his basis for treating this woman.

As Jung starts to unravel the deep neuroses inside Spielrein, he notices how intelligent and perceptive she is and asks her to assist him with some of his patients. The first case she works on is a practice one, where Jung has his wife hooked up to a machine that will record her blood pressure and heart beat - sort of an early day lie detector - that he uses along with word association. As Spielrein assists, she notes that Jung's wife was hesitant in answering certain questions about sex. She wonders if Jung has a happy marriage and soon afterwards, acts on this, as she passionately kisses him.

Jung realizes he must not have an affair with one of his patients, but he is clearly attracted to her and despite his inner doubts, goes ahead and sleeps with her. This behavior goes on for some time, with Jung finally letting Spielrein know that he cannot continue with this situation. As she has the upper hand on him, she suggests that he put all the details of this affair in a letter to Sigmund Freud in Vienna.

Freud had become a mentor and somewhat of a father figure to Jung, who had contradictory feelings about him. Clearly he respected Freud's original work, but he was also dismayed at how Freud tied in everything to sex. Now that Jung himself has had sex with a patient, he has left himself open to a brutally honest analysis from Freud and their friendship is tested.

Meanwhile, Spielrein who is now cured, has gone on to study pyschoanalysis and has published papers that are respected by Freud. The film at this point turns to examine how she came between Freud and Jung on the specific (the affair between Jung and her) and the general (which one would trust her and vice versa).

The screenplay is an intelligent one, adapted by Christopher Hampton from his play, The Talking Cure, which was itself adapted from the non-fiction book A Most Dangerous Method, written by John Kerr. All three main characters are real-life individuals (with Freud and Jung being world famous) and each is given his or her due here as three-dimensional characters. Naturally, having actors of this caliber is a great aide to this work and each one turns in an expert performance. Knightley takes chances with her role, not afraid to look unattractive; by the film's end she generates a lovely warmth. Fassbender exudes a quiet approach, one that appears quite confident on the outside, while actually full of doubt on the inside. Mortensen delivers my favorite performance in the film, giving us a Freud of great dignity and polish; given this man's public notoriety over the past century, it's nice to see Mortensen deliver such an understated turn.

I've not been that big a fan of Cronenberg in the past; much of that having to do with his use of extreme violence to spice up his films. How nice then for the director to take on a project such as this, a thinking man's story of lust, deception and professional relationships. Cronenberg lets the storylines play out, never overwhelming us with obvious symbolism, as might have been so easy to do, given the role of psychoanalysis in this work. His cinematographer Peter Suschitsky and he give us some lovely images, including Jung and Spielrein walking along a bridge in the forest and Freud lying down in Jung's sailboat that is tranversing a sun-splashed lake.

The ending of the film is a graceful one, as Spielrein, now a successful child psychologist meets with Jung, who has suffered a falling out with Freud. She clearly has the upper hand now, a 180-degree turn around from when they first met. Yet they treat each others as equal and each uncovers some of the secrets to living life in a meaningful way. Suppressing certain thoughts and behavior may be rational, but as we learn from all three characters, it is not always healthy.

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