Women who are deprived of their “nature” have long
been our favorite movie villainesses (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle) and action heroes (Kill Bill, Ultraviolet).
In A Dangerous Method, director David Cronenberg revisits the medieval notion of an hysteric as a woman
lacking sex or motherhood, to be cured by her good doctor.
The story begins when young Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly) is brought kicking, screaming, laughing and crying –– all at the same time –– to C.G. Jung’s clinic in Zurich. Dr. Jung (Michael Fassbender), having been immensely impressed by the successes of Sigmund Freud’s “talking cure,” decides to try it out on his new patient. Very soon, the story of Sabina’s sexual history –– or lack of it –– emerges: She had felt arousal at being hit by her father. Recognizing his patient’s obvious intelligence, Dr. Jung recruits her as an assistant, then encourages her to study medicine. But Sabina develops a crush on the handsome and perceptive Dr. Jung, whom she pursues as obsessively as she does her studies.
As Sabina, a patient turned one of the first female psychoanalysts, Knightly is not so much miscast as misdirected or under-directed. She valiantly contorts her limbs, juts out her angular jaw and smears
herself with mud to show us Sabina’s pain and self-loathing. If there is a fault in the casting, it’s the filmmakers’ crass equation of Knightly’s (relative)
youth and beauty with a shorthand for sex.
While acting crazy is not that difficult, moderating it is, as is to make convincing the transition from
crazy to brilliant –– which Cronenberg shows us in jagged fits and starts, as jerky as an hysteric in a seizure. At Jung’s clinic, we see Sabina concentrating
with unnerving intensity on a scalelike device to measure a test subject’s response, or furiously scribbling notes as she and Jung observe patients’
responses to a Wagner recording. She remains spastically maladjusted as she commences her medical studies, even while casually suggesting what
would become one of the main tenets of Jung’s study of anima/animus. Why? Because she’s not getting laid.
Sabina Spielrein (1895-1942) is credited with having brought together the two men –– Jung consulting with the Viennese pioneer on the case of a “Russian female patient” –– then later corresponded with both of them. Although this film’s marketing campaign might have you believing there was a romantic triangle, there is none of that here. Herr Doktor Freud (Viggo Mortensen) is too respectable, he has too much to lose –– he’s too bourgeois, even in the body of the sexy Viggo. (I kept saying “Come on, Dr. Freud, doesn’t your name mean joy?”)
Within this four-cornered geometry (with the addition of Jung’s wife), unforgiving dichotomies emerge:
Freud wants to explain everything as having a physical –– sexual in particular –– basis. He is a Jewish pragmatist whose choices are dictated by
what he calls “the good of the profession,” his concern for the reputation of the field of psychoanalysis then in its infancy. Jung, at the beginning of
his career, is a romantic Teuton: He suspects there is something more than sex that causes conflict in his patients, and he’s not convinced that physical
fulfillment is the ultimate goal of mankind. He reaches for words like spiritual or mysterious; Freud ridicules his younger colleague:
“So every man is god. You want to make god out of every patient.” Then there is Frau Jung, a product of Victorian society. Although it is her wealth
that gives the young doctor his freedom, she is a caged bird, opposite the intellectual and sexual hunger of Sabina.
Disregarding professional ethics and warnings from Freud, Jung commences an affair with Sabina, deflowering her as per her ardent wish, following up with whips and corsets –– in which Knightly is most fetching. Whips? Yes, she liked punishment. And what, again, is a Cronenberg film without a little gadget?
Jung, embracing the mysterious and unexplained, survived the world wars and went on to incorporate studies in paranormal psychology and mysticism as
part of the human psyche. Although Spielrein suggested to Freud what would become his death instinct principle, she remained a footnote to both men’s papers until the late 1970s, when a score of letters exchanged between her and Jung was discovered.
Brilliant women have been swept to the sidelines of history as hysterics
or witches. Ancient and medieval medicine explained hysteria as the dislocation of the uterus within the body,
accompanied by excessive dryness. Pregnancy and orgasm –– hence the invention of the vibrator –– were
prescribed as the cure well into the 20th century. What A Dangerous Method boils down to is this:
Dr. Jung cured Sabina by sleeping with her. It’s not a talking cure that is so “dangerous” here.
When Sabina returns to Zurich in 1912, pregnant with a child by her Russian-Jewish psychiatrist husband, she appears finally relaxed, at ease with her self and her destiny. Of course, the film doesn’t show anything of her career, of which little survives, thanks to both the sexism and anti-Semitism of the time (she and her two daughters were killed by the Nazis in 1942). At their chaste reunion, it’s Jung who is suffering from anxiety and insomnia, being tormented by premonitions of the World War to come. Sabina has grown up –– not so much as a self-actualized doctor, but as a pregnant Madonna. The table has turned: The hero is a neurotic, and the madwoman’s cure is confirmed by her motherhood.
–– Rika Ohara