Is "A Dangerous Method" a Dangerous Movie?
What makes Cronenberg's movie edifying, sexy and worth seeing
Posted December 12, 2011
After months of anticipation, director David Cronenberg's most recent film, A Dangerous Method, does not disappoint. Indeed, I found it thoroughly engaging, succinct, cleverly edited to a lean, mean and concise 94 minutes, psychologically astute and, for the most part, historically sound. For me, it succeeds both as a work of art (unlike Terrence Malick's terrible The Tree of Life) and as a fascinating, intimate peek into the momentous birth of psychoanalysis, from which just about every form of modern psychotherapy derives--including not only Jung's Analytical Psychology, contemporary psychodynamic psychotherapy and existential therapy, but even today's ubiquitous cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). The visually stunning and finely acted movie, inspired by clinical psychologist John Kerr's book A Most Dangerous Method, tells a vitally important story, one that changed the world and how we see ourselves, and tells it with style, insight, creativity, courage and humanity.
The movie starts with surprisingly brief but impressive scenes depicting the delivery by horse drawn carriage of a raving and ravaging young Russian woman (Sabina Spielrein played by Keira Knightley) to the elegant doorstep of the famous Burgholzli psychiatric clinic in turn-of-the-century Zurich, Switzerland. (She had evidently been transferred there from another hospital due to her unmanageable behavior, a fact not mentioned in the film.) This just happens to be where the young and ambitious Carl Jung, M.D. is completing his psychiatric residency under the tutelage of the eminent Dr. Eugen Bleuler, originator of the enduring terms schizophrenia and, as we are told by Jung himself, ambivalence. Almost immediately we see Dr. Jung (Michael Fassbender) meeting with Ms. Spielrein, his very first patient, and informing her he intends to use the "talking cure" discovered by Dr. Sigmund Freud (played believably by Viggo Mortensen) in her treatment. All this based solely on his reading of Freud's limited writings to that point, including The Interpretation of Dreams, since he and the senior Herr Doktor Freud had at that time never met nor had any contact whatsoever. Allegedly, according to Jung's own admission notes from the Burgholzli, dated August 17, 1904, Spielrein is clinically described as someone who "laughs and cries in a strangely mixed, compulsive manner. Masses of tics, rotating head, sticks our her tongue, legs twitching." (Though Keira Knightley has been lambasted by some reviewers for what they consider her "over the top" portrayal of Spielrein's so-called "hysterical" symptoms, she does an admirable job--despite the fact that she is ten years older than Ms. Spielrein was at that time. The truth is that, in all probability, Spielrein's presentation was far more bizarre and dramatic than anything depicted by Ms. Knightley. Psychotic behavior is nearly impossible to mimic. In psychiatry, truth is stranger than fiction.)
Ms. Spielrein, appearing to be at least borderline psychotic by her behavior, but game, takes to psychotherapy like a duck to water, sitting in a chair (not on a couch) in front of (but not facing) Jung, and relating her inner feelings, memories and images regarding her traumatically physically abusive childhood to him. Her condition improves dramatically and rapidly, due, as becomes quite evident, to the warm, supportive and understanding relationship--even friendship--offered to her by the naive and inexperienced yet caring Dr. Jung. They go for walks alone together through the forest, talk together sitting on a bench beside the impossibly beautiful lake of Zurich, take an excursion on one of the romantic steam-driven lake boats linking Zurich with the many other towns up and down the Zurichsee, and clearly grow closer and more intimate as Ms. Spielrein, the patient, becomes more lucid, rational and self-expressive. Jung even enlists her technical assistance with his extraordinary research project. (See below.) The question of therapeutic boundaries, a maintaining of what Jung later referred to as the vas temenos, the sacred container of treatment, seems not yet to concern him.
Even before his epic thirteen-hour-long marathon meeting with Freud in Vienna, summarily recreated for our vicarious viewing by Cronenberg, Jung was independently conducting his own scientific experiments at the Burgholzli hospital on the unconscious. As depicted in the film (see the official trailer here), Jung would present a list of predetermined words to a patient and ask for the first response that comes to mind. He would time the gap between stimulus and response and measure the patient's Galvanic Skin Response (the effect of sweating of the palms on electrical conductivity) and noted that certain emotionally loaded words and associations would result in different measurements. Jung surmised that what he was measuring was the indirect effects of what he called "complexes," and that his word association experiments provided scientific proof of the reality of Freud's concept of the "unconscious." Jung published his experimental findings in his book Studies in Word Analysis in 1906. What most people don't know is that Jung's experiments and laboratory equipment served as the forerunner to the modern polygraph, or "lie detector."
But Jung's highly successful therapeutic treatment of his patient takes a perverse turn when he takes Spielrein up on her offer to make it sexual. Here we see how Jung's inexperience, narcissism and his own repressed sexuality (and disconnection from what he would later call the anima) get the better of him, permitting his patient to seduce him. Jung had married one of the wealthiest women in Switzerland, lived in a fabulous home right on the lakeshore, and had no financial worries whatsoever. We see him living in luxury, style and comfort with his wife and children.Yet, he was apparently willing and driven to risk everything for this illicit (and apparently kinky) sexual liaison with the adolescent, but as he supposedly described her, "oriental and voluptuous" Ms. Spielrein, a secretive love affair that continued for many years prior to Jung finally ending it. Jung's unethical lapse in judgment is a dramatic demonstration of the irrational, compelling, creative and destructive, enlivening but dangerous daimonic power of eros. When he eventually does find the courage to discontinue the sordid affair, Spielrein, crushed, becomes enraged, impulsively grabbing a knife and cutting Jung's face: a relatively minor injury compared, as she herself later points out, to what she could have done in that terrifying moment. Jung was lucky to escape with his life. Though she restrained herself from inflicting graver damage, this perilous impulsivity lets us see some of her still unresolved emotional woundedness and narcissistic rage, suggesting what today would be perceived as a probable underlying borderline personality structure.
As I mentioned, this case took place during the formative days of psychoanalysis, in which Jung became Freud's closest colleague and co-worker in its development and dissemination. Indeed, the senior Freud for some time considered C.G. Jung his "heir apparent" to psychoanalysis once he himself was gone. Though both Freud and Jung were traditionally trained as physicians, psychiatry, like psychotherapy, was really still in its infancy. While, as medical doctors, they both recognized and had sworn to uphold the Hippocratic ethic of maintaining professional boundaries with patients, the concepts of what Freud came to call "transference" and "counter-transference," while taken for granted today, were still poorly grasped, and there had been limited opportunity for psychoanalysts to gain practical clinical experience contending with these powerful phenomena. So psychotherapy was, in this sense, still highly experimental. Freud had witnessed more than a decade before he gave birth to psychoanalysis, in the work of fellow physician Josef Breuer (see the case of Anna O.), how a female patient's erotic love (transference) for the physician could develop and wreak havoc with the medical treatment and doctor. This case marked, for Freud (see my prior post), the germination of what he eventually came to call "psychoanalysis."
The potentiality of love erotically entering into psychotherapy (or other professional relationships) is a constant peril. Such feelings are natural enough when two people meet regularly, discuss the most intimate matters, and when one regularly receives support, encouragement, empathy, respect, understanding and acceptance from the other. Since we all instinctively and sometimes neurotically need and seek love. Psychotherapists are susceptible to becoming the object of a patient's passionate admiration or ardor, and, in some cases, succumb to this tempting siren call, typically with catastrophic consequences for both parties. This is evidently what happened to the then immature, susceptible, repressed and uninitiated Dr. Jung. Once Freud got wind of what happened, it marked the beginning of the end of their collaboration. And, as the movie makes clear, it would not be the last of Jung's extramarital affairs with one of his patients: Some years later, following his bitter falling out with Freud and excommunication from the psychoanalytic circle, he turned for support during his horrific mid-life crisis to Antonia "Toni" Wolff, whom he had previously been treating for depression. Wolff, who, like Spielrein, also later became an analyst, was, by Jung's own admission, his "other wife," with whom he maintained an open relationship for decades until her death. She helped Jung through his darkest period, during which he temporarily descended into psychosis, providing the additional love and understanding he evidently desperately needed after he had effectively helped her by providing his during Wolff's analysis. (See my prior posts on Jung and Jung's Red Book.)
Most psychobiographers of Jung emphasize his problematical relationship with his father--Johann Achilles Jung, a henpecked, passive, depressive Swiss country parson-- in the adult Jung's difficulties, especially in his transferential relationship with Freud, who was old enough to be Jung's father. It was as if Jung initially saw in (or projected onto) Freud the strong, powerful, confident, successful father he always longed for. When that relationship failed, Jung felt abandoned and rejected by this "good father." But it may have been Jung's ambivalent (Bleuler's term) feelings toward his mentally unstable mother, Emilie Preiswerk Jung, his "mother complex," that had the most profund influence on Jung's peculiar psychological development. Jung's mother reportedly (though this was allegedly excised from the first draft of his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections) suffered psychiatric symptoms so severe that hospitalization for several months was required. Jung was only three-years-old at that time, and her psychological problems were to persist into his adulthood. It should be noted that Jung's own highly conflicted childhood relationship with his chronically mentally ill mother had been the source of great confusion, pain, distrust, feelings of abandonment, loss and anger, and can be seen, at least partly, as the cause of his compelling counter-transference reactions to these similarly disturbed female patients. "From then on," writes Jung, looking back, "I always felt mistrustful when the word 'love' was spoken. The feeling I associated with 'woman' was for a long time that of innate unreliability." (Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 8) So Jung, who--despite having Freud analyze his dreams on occasion as we see several times in the film as well as his so-called "mutual analysis" with another Burgholzli patient, a deviant psychiatrist, Dr. Otto Gross (lasciviously played by Vincent Cassel) -- had never himself really been in analysis, because of his own unconscious and unresolved "love wound," tended, in some early cases, to take the "love cure" quite literally. (Freud, in a letter to Jung, once referred to psychoanalysis as a "cure through love." ) And he, unfortunately, was not the only analyst guilty of such unprofessional behavior. (See my prior post.)
The film ends, abruptly as it begins, with a pregnant and now married Dr. Spielrein visiting her ex-lover and psychotherapist, Dr. Jung, at his home in Kusnacht, a lovely and well-to-do suburb just outside of Zurich. She finds Jung sitting by himself, staring off across the lake, learning from his wife, Emma, that he has not been himself since the break with Freud. For me, this was the weakest and least convincing scene in what otherwise is a fine film. The truth is that Jung had become severely withdrawn, depressed, dysfunctional and, at some point, sank into psychosis. He was disoriented, needing to remind himself at times that his name was C.G. Jung, that he was a psychiatist, that he lived at 228 Seestrasse, etc. He had visual hallucinations on occasion, and kept a loaded revolver in his nightstand with which to commit suicide if necessary. And that this dangerous inundation by the unconscious lasted for almost ten years. A written subjective record of this extended period of what psychiatric historian Dr. Henri Ellenberger has called "creative illness" can be found in Jung's personal journal, published recently as the Red Book. But it seems to me that due either to Cronenberg's direction or Fassbender's acting, Jung's profoundly debilitated condition is not made sufficiently clear to the audience. This is a pity, since it was precisely this existential crisis-- precipitated by the painful rupture with Freud, but probably latent all along and, therefore, bound to eventually happen--that led the deeply divided Jung to salvaging his own soul, more than fully recovering, and, in the process, discovering the psycholgical and spiritual secrets that later informed what he called Analytical Psychology.
What A Dangerous Method does exceedingly well is to show the humanity, complexities, and human frailties of Freud and Jung, both professionally and personally. We witness Jung's possession by his own repressed eros or sexual passion, ultimately coming close to destroying not only his patient's life but his own as well. At the same time, we can see the great Dr. Freud's compulsive cigar-smoking (later resulting in extremely painful cancer of the jaw), his arrogance, and his fainting spell precipitated by Jung's growing resentment and refusal to submit to his superior authority. We also sense a simmering and shadowy undertone of repressed anger between these two great men, which ultimately took its destructive toll on their relationship. It also touches on some of the fundamental differences between Freud's therapeutic approach and Jung's. For example, Freud's defensive fear of Jung's interest in religion, spirituality and the occult. And Jung's inability to accept Freud's rigid and dogmatic reduction of all psychological problems to sexual repression. In one memorable exchange between the two, Freud makes the case for the modest goal of restoring the patient's capacity to function, to love and to work. To transform "neurotic misery into common unhappiness." Whereas Jung, who, while never completely rejecting Freud's theories came to see psychotherapy as primarily a spiritual process, suggests that the goal of psychoanalysis should go much farther--to help the patient become his or her true self, that person they were meant to be, to "individuate," become more whole, more balanced, or, as I prefer to put it, to help patients find and fulfill their destiny. (See my prior post.)
So, you see, plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Even now, more than a century later, the same burning question still resonates: What causes mental disorders? What is the purpose of psychotherapy? (See my prior post.) Who was right? Where do you stand? With Freud or Jung? Both? Or with neither? Of course, much of Freud's sexual theorizing was based on what he was seeing in his neurotic, sexually repressed patients, in part, a collective symptom of the Victorian period. For many Jungians, the release of A Dangerous Method raised considerable concerns regarding Jung's already controversial reputation. Would A Dangeorus Method endanger the practice of Jung's Analytical Psychology? How would he, and by association, his followers, be perceived by the public, especially given the erotic scenes of an all-too-human Jung spanking and making love to his vulnerable teenage patient? There may have been some poetic license taken by Mr. Cronenberg in imagining these sexy bedroom scenes, since the truth is that no one but Jung and Spielrein really knew what happened behind closed doors. And both have been dead for more than fifty years. Still, there is no excuse for Jung's bad behavior--other than his own neurosis and lack of clinical experience with Freud's method. Psychotherapy should never be physically sexualized. This is why such inappropriate and damaging behavior is considered both unethical and illegal in most states today. I am certain that some Freudians had similar concerns regarding the way Freud would be portrayed. But the bottom line is this: I believe that this film will be good for both Jungians and Freudians, as well as for dynamic psychotherapy in general. The public is hungry for real psychotherapy today. The kind of depth psychology that Freud and Jung pioneered. If enough people see this fascinating film, which, with DVD and television, will surely happen, psychodynamic psychotherapy may receive a much-needed, new breath of life. Or, at least, a temporary reprieve from total extinction. Psychodynamic psychotherapy, the "talking cure," may be a dangerous method. (And, often, a long and expensive one.) But that does not diminish its proven healing power. Nor its rightful place in the understanding and treatment of mental disorders. As Jung once said, no treatment can be effective without taking risks. Which is why psychotherapists need to be extremely well-trained, including submitting to their own personal psychotherapy, prior to, and often after, being permitted to practice. But its plummetting popularity in the market place and imminent annihilation by psychopharmacology and cognitive-behavioral therapy is a far more dangerous and frightening prospect.