The three people at the center of David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” aren’t a love triangle in the traditional sense, but their relationship is just as messy. The movie follows the fathers of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightley), patient and later lover of Jung, still later patient of Freud, still later student of both and a renowned psychiatrist in her own right. It’s a complicated path.
The movie opens with a screaming and resistant Spielrein, daughter to a wealthy Russian businessman, being committed to a psychiatric hospital. There she meets Jung, who explains that he will try the new “talking cure”. He sits behind her, so as not to distract her, he says: Knightley then is facing us directly, her face filling the screen, with Fassbender behind. As he questions her, her face contorts and her voice whispers and shrieks – the performance is almost over-the-top and certainly uncomfortable to watch, which I suppose is the whole point.
We cut to Jung and Spielrein strolling the hospital grounds, talking on much the same basis as in the treatment room. But wasn’t Jung supposed to be out of sight during the treatment? What could be going on here? It immediately seems inevitable that Jung and Spielrein are certainly not going to be just doctor and patient. Surely Jung can see this too; for him to insist on being in the background at one moment and to talk on equal footing the next seems to ask for trouble. Either there will be heroic compartmentalization or things will get complicated.
Eventually the two will indeed become lovers, even as Jung’s wife produces a series of children. Their affair will see Spielrein satisfying the fetishes that were exposed by her talk therapy and that she had believed were wrong and made her dangerous and broken. Jung seems tawdry by comparison. Despite some hand-wringing about whether it is right to explore or repress base urges, ultimately his motivation seems to be the obvious one. Either way it was a little surprising to hear the two of them talk later in the movie about their outsized love for each other; at times there didn’t seem to be a lot between them.
Against all this, Jung and Freud are meeting for the first time and developing a personal and professional relationship. Freud praises the younger man as the heir to the throne; Jung calls Freud a father figure. But Freud, with Mortensen showing him judicious and logical, believes in strict and narrow psychoanalysis, concerned with the perception of their new field from outside. He seems to be a marketer and frames his favoring of Jung as a way to give the profession a face not of the Vienna Jewish community. Jung interprets these not as political acts but as evidence that Freud is no longer an innovator. He wants instead to promote a broader psychoanalysis, one that includes things that Freud sees as unscientific at best and superstitious at worst. Their polite parrying darkens as time goes on; my favorite scenes of the movie were those with Mortensen and Fassbender alone, the gentle tension between them ebbing and flowing.
But in the end for all the talk in the film, the difference of opinion between Freud and Jung is not really explained in great depth. Their relationship really breaks down in the regular fashion, no matter how much they try to cover the rift with the fig-leaf of intellectual disagreement. Jung’s relationship with Spielrein colors their arguments and, when Spielrein forces Jung to reveal it to Freud, disappoints the older man. Fassbender, in Jung and in his other recent starring role, seems to have nailed down playing ashamed, although here it not because of the sex itself but the deceit. Jung seems to be unable to address his desires. As he fights Freud’s belief that the root of all patients’ problems is sexual, the affair with Spielrein frays his nerves.
To complete the triangle, after their affair is exploded, Spielrein demands that Jung recommend that Freud take her as a patient. She seems unleashed by Freud’s method and her affair with Jung from what had been debilitating illness, and is now training to be a psychiatrist in her own right. With Freud as a pivot, the doctor and patient are in the process of switching roles, he ruined and on the verge of a nervous breakdown after losing his young mistress and his mentor, and she developing Freud’s work in new directions, impressing the old man in the role he had earmarked for Jung. In the end it is Spielrein who is the strong and confident center, against the aging Freud and the crumbling Jung.