Very few films that are not war films reach out from the screen and shake you. Once Were Warriors was one; Animal Kingdom; A History of Violence; Taxi Driver; Hardcore; Snowtown; A Separation. Another such is A Dangerous Method, by David Cronenberg from a play by Christopher Hampton, and the reason is mostly the performance of Keira Knightley as Carl Jung’s mistress-patient-colleague-lost-love-and-crony-in-perversion Sabina Spielrein. The intrusiveness of her madness, her contorting face and wrenching and flailing gestures, her anorexic frame and wide dark eyes and twisted smiles and her joy when Jung is beating her, is unlike anything seen outside of a porn cinema, and the acting level outscores by about fifty percent the similar good work done by Natalie Portman in Black Swan, who got an Oscar for it.
Jung is played by Michael Fassbender and Freud by Viggo Mortensson. Disciple and guru, son and father, warring ideologues and loving enemies, they changed the way the western world thought about things, and one of them was devious, unprincipled and secretive; and almost certainly wrong. Mortensson however plays him as he seemed in his day, very wise and balanced, courageous, virtuous, bourgeois, a little dull. He resents Jung’s married wealth, is quietly sensible of his Jewishness, craves fame and fortune and hides a significant dream from Jung lest it undermine his authority. He would be recogniseable today as a leader of a cult but in those days was thought as a fearless, pioneering scientist, ripping away the hypocritical secrecies of a world in denial of the Sexual Principle and baring its naked flesh and thrusting penis.
He was, as this film shows, much more like a Spin Doctor, seeking to suppress or discourage Jung’s theories of race memory and synchronicity and accurate subconscious forebodings lest they both be thought ratbags, and the Sexual Principle contaminated by needless adjacent mysticism. It was bad politics, he implies, perhaps correctly, to risk seeming loony. We must stick to what is acceptable. In pursuit of this cold careerist course he burnt all his own autobiographical papers lest he himself be posthumously ‘psychoanalysed’ and shown to have invented his theory of sexual projection to cover up incestuous rape, or its probability, in his own family, and his own traumatic discovery of his parents fucking, which he then declared to be what happened to everybody, when quite plainly it did not.
This is not dealt with in the film but worth noting. The conversations of the two forensic brain invaders, brilliantly evoked, show how exhilarating hypothetical discourse can be; ideas were sexy then as now and what might be called The Sherlock Holmes Method moved many a medical meddler, as here, to the wrong conclusions.
Jung’s affair with his patient, and her lurid temptation of him, echoes the early episodes of In Treatment, and would, it might be noted, see him struck off, disgraced and imprisoned were it to happen today. As performed by Knightley and Fassbender, in particular the bottom-smacking and her joy in it as she stares at herself in the mirror, in flagrante, I suppose the phrase is, one can only wonder why it didn’t happen sooner or why it ever ceased.
Fassbender, who played the perfect Irishman in Hunger and the perfect Englishman in Jane Eyre, here plays, improbably, the perfect Swiss. Upright, moral, secretive, possessed of a yacht, a lake, a mansion and a rich young wife Emma (played by Sarah Gadon who seems about twelve), he dare not stray into bohemian self-indulgence too far lest he lose everything. Yet he seems a good man, of warm intellectual courage beneath the frigid Protestant exterior, and sane when Freud is mad. I wrote to him, not that it matters, in 1960 when I was a Psychology student, but he was then in his last illness and did not write back.
Cronenberg, a wily director, has instructed his cameraman Peter Suschitsky to light and frame each composition as Ingmar Bergman would have, and the effect, though initially stilted, has eventual classic authority.
What a fine Bergman actor Fassbender would have been. In a game I have been lately playing with Evan Williams he is the Olivier of today, Giamatti the Laughton, Spacey the Guinness, Tom Wilkinson the Michael Redgrave, Keira Knightley the Olivia De Havilland, Scarlett Johanssen the Ingrid Bergman, Natalie Portman the Vivien Leigh, Meryl Streep the Joan Fontaine, Kristin Scott Thomas the Katherine Hepburn, Carey Mulligan the Audrey Hepburn, Cate Blanchett the Lauren Bacall, Renee Zelwegger the June Allyson, George Clooney the Cary Grant, Hugh Grant the Jimmy Stewart, Robert De Niro the Anthony Quinn, Richard E Grant the David Niven, Colin Firth the Robert Donat; and so on. And the archetypes we always need, in any generation, up on the screen, the travelling repertory company of seventeen known faces — hey, hey, the gang’s all here — is reliably supplied by the zietgeist, if that’s the word I want, in any generation.
It is an idea that would have pleased Carl Jung, and I urge on you this picture.