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A Dangerous But Necessary Method

At the opening of A Dangerous Method, Sabina Spielrein convulses behind a carriage window, squirming, shrieking, laughing, her long hair in disarray, her expression tortured, as horses pull her to a mental hospital to be treated by Carl Jung. Years later, as a carriage draws her down a road away from Jung, she sits elegantly, her hair in place, the tears in her eyes barely ruining her impassive expression. In between these two carriage rides, Spielrein transforms from a crazed patient to a doctor of psychology. She cultivates relationships with Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and emerges apparently healthy.


Keira Knightley’s performance as Sabina is incredible: while Jung psychoanalyzes her, she twitches, grabs at her face, and stutters; her eyes bug out and she shakes madly. Her lingering Russian accent flows in and out of her speech patterns. Her intensity is captivating and catchy. Fassbender, an emerging star, plays Jung, managing to feign a semblance of outward calm amidst inner turmoil. Their relationship is staged beautifully. While seemingly emotionless from Jung’s perspective, by the movie’s end, he clutches at Spielrein, sobbing like a child.


A Dangerous Method, directed by David Cronenberg, explores the historical relationships between Spielrein, Jung, and Freud. Set in Switzerland and Vienna in the early twentieth century, and based on a true story, the film delves into the early beginnings of Freudian psychology, the interpersonal relationships between patient and doctor and between student and mentor, and the dissolution of the professional into the sexual.


Yet the film itself is not explicitly sexual. Jung and Freud debate the use of euphemisms at Freud’s dinner table. Freud believes that sexuality should never be disguised, because people will be just as angry when they find out what he really means. So why should he not be direct from the get-go? Jung, on the other hand, believes that being overtly sexual is not the best method, even if sexuality is implicit. As Jung asks Spielrein when he agrees to advise her for her doctoral thesis, “Shall we say that this time next Tuesday, I’ll start gently ripping you to shreds?”


While Freud continues to assert that he believes everything leads back to sexuality, Jung becomes increasingly frustrated with Freud’s fixation on the erotic. Jung is equally interested in other areas of psychology, particularly in what he calls the catalytic exteriorization phenomenon, a strange bodily ability to feel or sense the future. His interest in a predictable future is also seen in Sabina, who believes an angel, a voice in her head, tells her what people are about to say before they speak. The film itself uses foreshadowing, cluing the viewer into future events. While performing a psychological test for Jung, his wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) removes her wedding ring and it hits the desk loudly, as the viewer realizes they will soon struggle with their marriage.


The film’s underlying premise is that every relationship is both evolving and devolving, that all ideas and people walk a two-way street. The definition of present extends both to the past and the future. And the relationship between anyone is two-way, complex, and filled with strife and conflict. The language in the film also demonstrates a dual meaning: many homophones are used throughout. Everything has a layer of meaning beyond the sexual, as Jung, with his insistence on the metaphysical, emerges superior to Freud as the movie’s hero. Emma interprets “Jung” as “young” in the psychological test. And when Jung tells Emma he’s losing his patience, he means both “patience” and “patients,” feeling as if he’s already loosing Sabina to a pit of insanity into which he can’t follow her.


But follow he does. Slowly Jung himself realizes that little differentiates a doctor from his patients. Professors in suits walk through the hospital amidst the patients, screaming with insanity. The doctors purport normalcy, yet what divides them from their patients seems only to be a false assertion of sanity. Belief in being able to divide between us as normal, and them as abnormal and insane, is an imaginary ideal.


The cinematography enforces a different divide: that between mind and brain. The filming is crisp and clear, showing shades of whites and pastels with the occasional blacks and grays. The camera glosses over landscapes, houses, and carriages bumping down cobblestone streets. In this black and white landscape, all seems safe and well. Yet this is only what our visual brains observe. Behind the lace fabric, the silent houses, the bookshelves neatly organized by authors, the pastel blue ocean water, exists the world of the mind. And this world is far from sane. In this realm, the distinctions between patient and doctor, between wife and mistress, between mentor and student, all dissolve. Everyone is crazed, as Jung tells Spielrein later in the movie, “I have some kind of illness.”


At the movie’s end, Jung confides in Sabina that he keeps having an “apocalyptic dream.” In his recurring dream, terrible waters flood all of Europe, sweeping up bloodied corpses. Soon the waters themselves turn to blood, “the blood of Europe.” Four years after Jung’s conversation with Spielrein, World War I breaks out.


Jung’s prophetic words are most relevant not historically, but universally. The movie spends its entire time visually on calming, pleasing scenes. Yet all the characters are tormented. Their futures are all apocalyptic, and their present lives foreshadow war. Although the future brings wreckage, the viewer realizes that blood, catastrophe, and violence have been mostly absent visually. And that’s because generally, in the world we live in, they are absent. The real catastrophe and cataclysmic wars we experience are in our minds. We all have some kind of illness, some fixation, multiple selves fighting one another other within us. Behind the closed doors of our minds, we all keep secrets about who we are, what we practice, and what divides us, until our deaths.


“How sweet it must be to die,” whispers Freud to Jung, passed out on the floor in the midst of a conference. Freud’s defines the death urge as Todestrieb, as opposing sexual desire. Spielrein picks up on Freud’s fascination with death, proposing a differing view to Freud’s in her thesis. She believes that sex is connected to death, as sex is about self-destruction, or losing and destroying oneself in the other. Sex is both a creative and a destructive force, able to destroy and create both past and future through present actions. There is a fine line between the destructive and creative marks we make; the stamps we leave behind are both violent and affectionate. Ink marks, a sign of writing or creativity, weave in and out of the opening and closing credits, similarly shaped to the violent mark Spielrein slashes on Jung’s right cheekbone.


Spielrein is destructive: she has been admitted as a patient to Jung’s office because of her sadomasochistic tendencies, stemming from her father beating her as a young child. But a film that on the surface seems to be about sadomasochism is deeply about pain generally as a path to pleasure, about issues like life, death, and their intrinsic relationship to the sexual.


While on a ship to America, Jung confides in Freud that he’s been having a dream about a ghost that refuses to die. As they attempt to decipher the dream, Freud muses that these ghosts are their ideas and theories. Freud’s prophetic words about his own theories refusing to die apply to all ideas. Our minds are forever spinning; eternally haunted by ghosts of our ideas, of relationships we’ve severed, of the dual meaning behind each word we utter, they continue to operate long after our death. Yet the ideas in our mind are invisible, unless we’re pragmatic and put them down on paper to exist after we pass, unless we take chances in pursuit of dreams.


As Freud puts it, “Experiences like this, however painful, are necessary and inevitable. Without them, how can we know life?” And as Jung asserts in the movie’s last seconds, “Sometimes you have to do something unforgivable just to be able to go on living.”


Living is not about repression. As Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), both a patient and a doctor, commands Jung, “Never repress anything.” Although Otto speaks sexually, his meaning is dual. Otto emerges as a sort of physical manifestation of Jung’s conscience. Otto, an almost imaginary concept, speaks about ideas just as much as sexuality. Although dangerous, it is sometimes necessary to not disguise ideas, to be genuine about feelings, to be real about intellect. Sometimes it’s important to divorce the brain from the heart; as Spielrein tells Jung, “I have to work in the direction my instinct tells my intelligence.” For Spielrein, even her intellectual work is about following what her heart tells her mind. The path that seems irrational and stems from pure emotions is sometimes the necessary course to take.


Psychoanalysis of oneself or another, sex as a form of healing, and the unabashed pursuit of ideas, are dangerous methods towards self-discovery, but are at times necessary. These uncontrolled, unscientific methods might lead to pain or madness. Yet sometimes madness or error is necessary to arrive at sanity and clarity. Sabina, a Jew, believes that “perfection can only be arrived at for what is conventionally thought of as sin.” Sometimes, we have to do something unforgiveable, even sin, just to continue living with the ideas and ghosts in our minds.


A Dangerous Method is now playing at East Village Cinema, 22 East 12th Street, and came out on DVD March 27. The movie is rated R for sexual content and brief language.