David Cronenberg: A Dangerous Method (2011)


A Dangerous Method is a self-portrait. It’s not the first of Cronenberg’s career. The Brood is nothing if not a self-reflexive exercise, while all of Cronenberg’s early films, especially his silent experimental works Stereo and Crimes of the Future, turn upon the actions of an unseen Mad Scientist figure, a naked stand-in for Cronenberg himself. But while The Brood plays as heart-rending confession, A Dangerous Method is more objective, or at least, more mannered, in its reflections on Cronenberg’s obsessions and his own effect on the world around him. But it’s also a wonderful chamber drama, with three figures interlocked in a power struggle with each other as they dissect each other’s impulses and forward the field of psychoanalysis. Perhaps it’s redundant to say that the world’s foremost Freudian director excels at making a film about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, but nevertheless, this film is a delightful late period work from the Canadian master.

While Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) is the towering figure in A Dangerous Method, the central figure is Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), who begins the film as a psychiatric physician at an insane asylum in Switzerland and over the course of the narrative transforms into Freud’s protege and eventual rival. Or is it Sabina Spielrein, the Russian Jewish patient of Jung’s who becomes his protege, lover, and eventual rival? The arcs of both Jung and Spielrein mirror each other in this film, and the transference between the two is no accident. You could argue that either character is the central figure as the focus splits between the two and both characters find themselves creating new power dynamics in response to each other and the world around them over the course of the film. The transference of power and the upending of hierarchy is central to the film, as it is to all costume dramas that thrive off of wit, sparring dialogue, and subterfuge.

In fact, A Dangerous Method succeeds wonderfully as a conventional costume drama. Written by Christopher Hampton, based on his own play, The Talking Cure, A Dangerous Method spends most of its runtime in parlours, gardens, or clinics, focusing on pairs of characters engaged in a battle of wits with each other. Cronenberg, ever the clinical filmmaker, makes clinical talk the main method of his storytelling, with very little other action of any kind taking place over the course of the film. For such a famously transgressive filmmaker, the film itself is remarkably tasteful; much like M. Butterfly, it restricts itself to a few moments of narrative rapture and most of the intensity and sensual energy of the film is provided by the performers, namely Michael Fassbender, who borrows a touch of Jeremy Irons’ repressed erotic energy in his depiction of Carl Jung. But even when compared to M. Butterfly, the film is withdrawn and repressed. The few moments of explicit sexuality are mere glimpses of foreplay or the aftermath of intercourse. Cronenberg embraces the early-20th-century setting in Austria and Switzerland and does little to push the boundaries of taste, aside from the moments of kink that arise during Jung and Spielrein’s affair.

It’s as if Spielrein’s bafflement at the film’s beginning—when Jung tells her he would like to simply talk to her about her problems and she, in disbelief, asks him, “Talk?,” to which he replies, “Just talk”—is a stand-in for the viewer’s own questioning of the film’s tasteful presentation. A David Cronenberg film surely cannot merely consist of people in fancy dress talking to each other in parlours? Yes, it can, but that doesn’t mean it is not Cronenbergesque. In the  prestige period of his career, which consists of the six year period encompassing the release of A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method, when his films became awards darlings, Cronenberg became extraordinarily talented at filtering his own thematic obsessions in satisfying genre entertainment: just as A History of Violence and Eastern Promises succeed as crime thrillers, even if you don’t take into account their Cronenbergesque themes, A Dangerous Method is a successful costume drama.

It thrives off witty language and the conversational editing style, which pairs sequences of Jung and Freud writing to each other and reading their letters and has one letter respond to the other as if it were a witty rebuke lobbed at the other. Other scenes have the characters in the same room together, intellectually sparring about psychological topics, often at the expense of the scenario around them. In a hilarious scene early in the film, Jung visits Freud at his home in Vienna and Cronenberg holds on a wide two-shot of Jung and Freud sitting at the dinner table together. Jung goes off about the libido and the sexual impulse that drives people, while piling an enormous amount of food onto his plate. He only stops what he’s doing when Freud sarcastically comments that he’s glad Jung doesn’t feel the need to withhold his opinions in the presence of Freud’s family, and Cronenberg cuts to the reverse shot of Freud’s many children sitting at the table with them, starring dumbfoundedly at Jung. It’s almost Spielbergian in its visual wit.

Later moments in the film often rely on Freud’s wit, with Viggo Mortensen leveling his gift at playing exasperated into moments of passive-aggressive sarcasm that are broadly funny. Another highlight is when Freud makes a comment about the need to make money with a clinical practice while also furthering his research, to which Jung responds that he doesn’t need to worry about money since his wife is fortunately wealthy. Freud waits a moment and responds, as if to himself more than Jung, that “Yes, that is fortunate.”

Costume dramas have always thrived off the power of language, whether the novels of Jane Austen or even the popular Netflix television series, The Crown, and A Dangerous Method delivers all the signifiers and pleasures of the genre. But its interests are not restricted to the pleasures of language. Nor is the film overly interested in biography, as many costume dramas are. It is emphatically not a conventional biopic. But its status as a costume drama does play into its focus on psychoanalysis, power dynamics, and the impossibility of maintaining objective distance, as these themes rely on dialogue as much as a conventional costume drama does.

As a film about the development of psychoanalysis as a discipline, A Dangerous Method uses the central framework of psychoanalysis, which consists of a dialogue between two individuals, one holding power over the other, as its main narrative device. In the early scenes, this relationship is explored through Jung and Spielrein, as Jung is treating her as a patient at his clinic. In his first session with her, he tells her to remain seated in a chair facing forward, while he sits behind her and asks her questions. When she answers, she’s not meant to turn and respond to him, but instead treat his probing inquiry as coming from an objective, impersonal source. (It’s as if the doctor is taking on the role of the patriarchal god that’s central to much of Freud’s critique of religion, which comes up later in the film during a psychiatric conference that both Freud and Jung attend, during which Jung undercuts Freud’s interpretation by pointing out its historical inaccuracy.)

Although this framework of question and answer, doctor and patient, is meant to be limited to the psychoanalytical sessions, it becomes the main way that characters interact throughout the rest of the film. In fact, Cronenberg literalizes this framework by utilizing split diopter shots, which hold both figures in a frame in focus, while maintaining their geographic distance from each other.

We first see this approach as Jung tests out a contraption on his wife, Emma (Sarah Gadon), probing her with a word-association quiz about concepts like family, sex, and husband. We see both Jung and his wife in focus in the frame, but their eyes do not meet and Jung looms over Emma, dominating the frame just as he dominates her psyche with his questions. Later, we get an extended moment of this visual approach during a session between Jung and Spielrein, with Cronenberg holding the shot on Spielrein as she discusses her repression and abuse at the hands of her father, with Jung looming over her in the background of the frame. This approach allows for the power dynamics to be demonstrated visually on the screen, while keeping the characters’ eyes visible to the viewer, and not each other; it mirrors the way Cronenberg approaches sex in Crash, opting for “doggy-style” sex scenes so he can have the characters facing the camera, allowing the viewer to probe their faces for emotions.

We get these sorts of split diopter shots between all the major characters, always with Jung as one component of the pair. We see this between Jung and Freud, Jung and his wife, Emma, and Jung and Spielrein. Jung often holds the position of power in these shots early in the film, but that is not maintained throughout the narrative. Eventually, Freud takes the position of control, and then, eventually, Spielrein. The roles these figures hold in comparison to each other—doctor/patient, professor/student, mentor/mentee, husband/wife—are constantly recalibrated throughout the film as certain characters wrest power from the other, with Cronenberg using the split diopter shots to clarify the character’s current position. However, it’s key to point out that Emma Jung never takes the dominant position in the frame, showing that while Freud and Spielrein are Jung’s intellectual equals, his wife is relegated to a submissive position that is maintained by her inability to challenge his many affairs.

If the dramatic conflict between these characters is explored as power struggles, the emotional arc of the characters is also one of attempting to gain control over one’s self. Jung begins the film seemingly in complete control over himself; he has a good position at the clinic, is a respected member of his field, and is a loving partner to his wife. At the end of the film, despite his success at becoming the world’s leading psychologist (as the end titles let us know), he is emotionally out of control and isolated. The final image of the film has him sitting in a chair in his garden, alone, abandoned by Spielrein and Freud and distant from his wife. His arc is defined by his loss of power.

On the other hand, Spielrein takes the opposite journey. The first images of the film are of her being carted off to Jung’s asylum in a carriage, under the control of male handlers who physically drag her into the clinic. She is hysterical, screaming, and unable to control her bodily impulses. Contrast this to the final images of her in the film, which again show her in a vehicle, but this time, in a car and not a carriage, and completely in control of herself emotionally and physically as she leaves Jung for the last time.

Both Jung’s and Spielrein’s emotional arcs are a result of psychoanalysis and their understanding of their repressions. Spielrein becomes aware of her own sexual deviancy and repression through clinical analysis with Jung, and after she overcomes her own transference onto him and their relationship ends, she is able to become her own master and lead a fruitful life. Jung, on the other hand, unleashes his own deviancy and begins to relish transgression. However, he never comes to understand the source of his own desires and is never able to overcome them, instead repressing them and allowing them to control him, leaving him a passive figure by film’s end.

Repression and transgression are key concepts in the films of David Cronenberg. For instance, in The Brood, Nola Carveth’s repression of her anger at her husband and daughter manifest themselves in the literal demons that terrorize the other characters in the film. In Crash, the characters overcome their repression through transgression, allowing themselves to evolve into new types of human beings that dominate each other through the use of technology. However, in neither film is repression or transgression a positive, and neither are they in A Dangerous Method, although coming to understand the source of one’s repression gives that individual control over their appetites. This is a key Freudian concept, as repression is damaging to the individual, but transgression is damaging to society as a whole. Thus, this brings us to the notion that A Dangerous Method is an exploration of the Cronenbergesque and a self-portrait of Cronenberg as an artist.

While Freud engages with the power struggles with Jung and Spielrein, he is never a victim of repression, nor does he indulge in transgression. In many ways, he is Cronenberg’s Mad Scientist character in prestige form, as he is an actual historical figure and, depending on your opinion of Freudian psychology, perhaps the maddest scientist of the 20th century. If you read my reviews on Cronenberg’s early films or my essay on the evolution of the Mad Scientist character in his early films, you’ll know that the Mad Scientist is a stand-in for Cronenberg himself. He admits as much when discussing characters like Dr. Luther Stringfellow in Stereo or Antoine Rouge in Crimes of the Future in the book Cronenberg on Cronenberg. As his filmmaking developed, so did his approach to the Mad Scientist character, transforming the figure from an observer to a subject of psychological inquiry.

In A Dangerous Method, we get a recalibration of this approach, as through the characters of Jung and Freud, Cronenberg both explores the Mad Scientist as deeply implicated in his own work (Jung) and as the objective observer of the world around him (Freud). It’s no accident that Freud is never implicated in A Dangerous Method, because he maintains the clinical distance necessary to help his patients, while Jung becomes romantically linked with a patient and finds his life spiralling out of control as a result. Thus, if the Mad Scientist is always a stand-in for Cronenberg himself in his films, then A Dangerous Method becomes a self portrait of Cronenberg through the characters of Jung and Freud.

Jung is Cronenberg as the transgressive artist. He is the figure that is unable to maintain his objective approach to his work, as evidenced by semi-autobiographical films like The Brood or works like Crash, which work his own deviant obsessions into the films themselves. Freud is Cronenberg as the elder statesman of body horror and an artistic icon. This is evident in the self-reflexive way that characters discuss Freud’s work and the way that the public is appalled by its implications. This is no more evident than during an extended conversation between Jung and Freud about 25 minutes into the film:

Freud: I don’t think you have any notion of the strengths and depths of the opposition to our work. There’s the whole medical establishment, of course, baying to send Freud to the auto-da-fé; but that’s nothing as compared to what happens when our ideas begin to trickle through in whatever garbled form they’re relayed to the public: the denials, the frenzy, the incoherent rage.

Jung: But might that not be caused by your insistences on the exclusively sexual interpretation of the clinical material?

Freud: All I’m doing is pointing out what experience indicates to me must be the truth. And I can assure you that in a hundred years’ time, our work will still be rejected.

This entire conversation speaks directly to Freud’s controversial nature, both in his time and in the century to follow, but it can also be interpreted as a commentary on Cronenberg’s own controversial nature as a filmmaker. Cronenberg has accrued the reputation of a sexual deviant, a sadist, and a misanthrope through his films, especially his body horror of the late 1970s and early 1980s. If we’re to look at Freud’s words in this light, we understand that they could apply to the hysterical frenzy that followed the release of films like Shivers and Videodrome.

As well, just as Freud is the father of psychoanalysis, Cronenberg is the father of body horror. He pioneered a form taken up by filmmakers like Clive Barker and Vincenzo Natali. In A Dangerous Method, Freud tells Jung, “I have simply opened a door. It’s for the young men like yourself to walk through it.” Cronenberg could say the same to these other horror filmmakers that followed him.

Cronenberg has always been a self-reflexive filmmaker, exploring the ramifications of his own psyche and never closing himself off from being implicated in his own work. Thus, his depictions of Freud and Jung are extensions of this self-reflexive tendency. As well, with its explicit focus on the Freudian concepts of repression and transgression, A Dangerous Method works as a primer on the ideas that underpin Cronenberg’s work as a whole. If you want to understand his attitude towards the destructive nature of transgression that is borne out in his films from Shivers to The Fly to Crash, you need only watch the scenes between Jung and the hedonistic psychologist, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel). Gross’s mantra is to “Never repress anything,” which has destructive implications in the film. Not only does this pervert Gross’s relationships with his patients, as he pursues them as sexual objects, but it also leads Jung to pursue a sexual relationship with Spielrein, which upsets his domestic stability. Furthermore, and most obviously, it leads Gross to kill himself.

In Cronenberg’s films, society is repressed (and oppressive as a result), but the emergence of transgressive behaviour is always more destructive than the artificial stability of an oppressive society. In Shivers, it leads to apocalypse. In Crash, it leads to animalistic murder. In Dead Ringers, it leads to decay and death. Its effects are always negative. Thus, in a Cronenbergesque work, Jung is correct to say that “not to repress yourself is to unleash all these dangerous and destructive impulses,” which always have negative implications for society as a whole in Cronenberg’s films.

A Dangerous Method is a film constantly in conversation with this notion of repression and transgression. It’s nakedly an exploration of the philosophical and psychological themes that underpin Cronenberg’s work as a whole, and an essential self portrait. It coalesces the Freudian themes of Cronenberg’s entire body of work, while delivering these themes in a satisfying chamber drama that thrives off of shifting power dynamics and the intellectual rigour and wit that defines of the best of the genre.

A Dangerous Method is not Cronenberg’s best film nor his most Cronenbergesque. But it is the best encapsulation of the psychological concepts that define him and his work. Thus, in addition to being a self-portrait, it’s also a manifesto. If you want to understand David Cronenberg, the man and the filmmaker, it is essential, and thrilling, viewing.

9 out of 10

A Dangerous Method (2011, Germany/Canada/United Kingdom/United States)

Directed by David Cronenberg; written by Christopher Hampton, based on his play, The Talking Cure, based on A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr; starring Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Gadon, Vincent Cassel.