Friday, February 3, 2012

A Dangerous Method

Physician, Heal Thyself
"It's Hard, You Will Find, to be Narrow of Mind When You're Jung at Heart"

There's a lovely scene in Francis Coppola's Tucker: The Man and His Dream, in which Tucker's accountant (played by Martin Landau) talks about how his mother "in the old country" warned him not to get too close to people or he'd catch their "dreams." "Years later," he says "I realized I misunderstood her. 'Germs', she said, not dreams, you'll catch their germs."

David Cronenberg's film of A Dangerous Method (adapted by Christopher Hampton from his play), a fictionalization of the relationship between psychiatric pioneers Signmund Freud, Carl Jung and Sabina Spielrein, might well have "don't get too close to people or you'll catch their dreams" as its tagline.  Starting out, Jung and Freud are two eminent theoretical psychiatrists, the former in Switzerland and the latter in Vienna.  Spielrein is admitted to Jung's care, suffering from what appears to be schizophrenia, but he is convinced that Freud's "talking cure" (the name of Hampton's play) might lead to a break-through from her confusion and agitation.

Jung (Michael Fassbender) has it all going for him—in marked contrast to his troubled patients and his contemporaries in his field—married to a rich heiress, he works because he wants to, not because he has to.  Humorless, cool and entirely self-absorbed and -satisfied, the treatment of Spielrein gives him a very real sense of accomplishment, as the woman's obvious intelligence allows her to improve from the agitated state she arrives in.*  His comradeship with Freud (Viggo Mortensen, his third film in a row with director Cronenberg) starts intellectually, evolves into an affectionate father-son mentorship, Freud sees him as an "heir" in the field of psychotherapy, and encourages his younger contemporary and his processes...up to a point—Freud cooly informs Jung, while he's is visiting the home of the elder, that, sure, he can espouse his sexual theories at the Freud family dinner table—after all, "they've heard worse."  But the air of chastisement is never far from Freud's sphere, like the smoke that hangs around his cigar.

Jung is a confident, if clueless, intellectual and emotionally remote (although he would use the word "dispassionate").  Things start to go downhill when Freud sends him "a problem" professor, Otto Gross (a nearly unrecognizable Vincent Cassel), a libertine without conscience or consequences, who starts to influence Jung to his way of thinking.  The pressures of Gross' philosophy (such as it is) and Spielrein's needy attempts at seduction, compels him to begin, eventually, a twisted affair with his patient, the result of which leads to whispers of impropriety in psychiatric circles and creates a rift between him and Freud.  Jung reacts, not by questioning his own actions, but escalating his objections to Freud's obsession with sex as the root of human dysfunction,** and as good as he is at examining others, is incapable of realizing the deadening of his own emotions and darkening of his tone.  His own self-analysis becomes paralyzed in the conflicts of his own mind, and he's left confused, disillusioned and impotent to know how to bring himself out of it.  The patient improves and becomes a more rounded human being, but the doctor...he succumbs.  

It recalls words the simple answer my brother used when I was contemplating psychotherapy: "But...psychiatrists are crazy!" 

And why wouldn't they be?  In tending to our needs, they are just as likely to catch our dream and ensnare our nightmares...and be ensnared by them.  Everything is communicable.

And the stories of Spielrein, Jung and Freud, running parallel but opposite paths of mental health, exemplify the rising and falling fortunes, not of career and accomplishment, but of personal integrity.  A Dangerous Method is a furthering of the film argument (which is found throughout the work of Kubrick and Welles, for instance) that intellect does not matter so much in a person's measure as character.

A Dangerous Method is a Matinee.

* A passing comment on Keira Knightley's performance, which is, initially, truly alarming, one of the great "crazy" acts since Helena Bonham Carter's Ophelia in Zefferelli's version of Hamlet, but then Knightley has never been afraid of a performance that will risk her beauty.  Here, she is vigorously spastic, mercurial, contorting her face into ape-like grimaces and flashes of madness, the eyes pin-wheeling around the room in search of...anything that might pull her out of her own head.  Yes, it's over-the-top, but compare it to the woman she becomes by the end—for the triad of performances and personalities in the film, her story is the focus, the linch-pin around which the film revolves—very properly, as those early years of the "talk treatment" are dominated, probably unfairly, but historically accurately, by the reputations of the father-figures in the field.  Girls Not Allowed.

** This is certainly true in the portrayal of Freud here; if you ask Morgenson's Freud how many psychiatrists it would take to change a light-bulb (Answer: Just one, but it has to really want to change), he'd cooly appraise you, contemplate his cigar and ask aloud why you chose to not use the word "screw."  Avoidance, maybe?  Um...


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

LOVE the words you write on Keira and I love it even more because you make mention of HBC's Ophelia which I think is an excellent performance (she's the one Ophelia who completely makes me feel her descent). The film is just a bit too antiseptic to me at times, but on a second viewing I found that it worked for the most part. A good film, either way, although I wish it was excellent - because the pieces seem to be there for it to be excellent.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Yeah, this one must have tough for you--Hampton, Knightley, period drama...but ultimately clinical and unmoving. Intellectually, I greatly admired it (unusual for a Cronenberg film, who usually is so visceral) and enjoyed where it went, but I was left unmoved...except in the ultimate triumph of Knightley's role.