‘The world of consciousness must now be levelled down in favour of the reality of the unconscious. In the first case, reality had to be protected against an archaic, “eternal” and “ubiquitous” dream-state; in the second, room must be made for the dream at the expense of the world of consciousness.’
– Carl Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, 1951.
In past years I have been a proponent for the films of David Cronenberg, thrilled by his at times delicate, but often lurid evocation of horror and the grotesque to explore deep desires and psychological complexities of the human mind. It was not consciously that I became unfamiliar with his recent work, neglecting to see Spider, A History of Violence or Eastern Promises. But perhaps I did lose favour with him; the last film of his I saw was eXistenZ (1999) and while I cannot remember why my 2005 self hated it, it had nothing of the humour or pernicious charm of The Fly, Videodrome, or Dead Ringers. Perhaps it was all too recent, all too familiar on a superficial level of gadgetry, and the grotesque penetration of the psyche could not delve much further than the skin.
My interest in psychoanalytic theories, and particularly those of Carl Jung, drove me to finally get myself to the cinema for a new release (something which doesn’t happen too often, although I’m slowly approaching frequency). And I have to say that after all these years I was mildly unimpressed, and I’m not sure whether I am remaining mild or becoming severe (a week has lapsed since I recorded this though, and I can confirm I am definitely veering toward severe dislike). While Michael Fassbender was, of course, brilliant, perfectly grappling with misjudged prudence, and Viggo Mortensen incredibly seductive as Freud must have been, not even the work of those two could not draw the film out of its stagnant lack of credibility. Not in terms of the whole story, as relations between the characters seemed true enough and were substantiated in the script. But the script posed the major problem for me; it was, simply put, far too transparent. For a film about psychoanalysis, there’s something a little ironic about that.
Many of Jung’s complex psychological theories are included in the script in a manner of insulting mundanity, introduced far too clunky just to get an obvious point across, but in the process destroying the psychological power or human relevance of concepts. The most terrible example of this is when Sabina questions Jung’s resistance to sexual desire; she says, ‘Don’t you think there’s a bit of woman in every man and a bit of man in every women?’ I’m paraphrasing of course. But this base explanation of the animus and anima achieves very little, and also, I’m sure he didn’t reach it this way. The introduction of Jung’s concept of synchronicity is fairly poorly handled as well, seen only when he is in Freud’s study and senses that there will be an audible crack in the wooden interior furnishings, then proceeds to rant for a while about awareness and other intuitive things. These things are introduced so simply but then have very little to do with what is necessary to the film itself. After such concepts are introduced they are fairly adamantly discarded, cast off, as though the scriptwriter felt obliged to include Jung’s great thoughts in the portrait of the great thinker for no other reason than to inform the viewer that Jung thought of them. On top of everything else this is just lazy.
My problem is that because A Dangerous Method deals with only this brief slice of Jung’s life. The aforementioned theories aren’t dealt with or discussed in any conceptual manner, so why introduce them? I know there is so much more to his idea of psychoanalysis that now all I want to do is re-read Modern Man In Search of a Soul and Dreams. And I will. But in addition to this intellectual barrier introduced by A Dangerous Method it also contained some quite severe aesthetic impediments to my experience as a spectator. The opening twenty minutes or so was composed of a succession of rather unpleasant cuts, with far too many close ups involved to feel comfortable in the film space. The intention of this method could have been to disorient the spectator, make us feel explicitly uncomfortable and absorb something of the hysteria that Keira Knightley’s Sabina Spielrein was caught in. But if this was aim, it was not achieved. The editing was too clunky, and the aesthetic transfer of the psychological state of the character unsuccessful. Such things must work with subtler skill.
Later, when Freud and Jung are on board a ship to America, there is a long shot that locates the two men on deck, one sitting and one standing at the edge, facing away. Jung speaks, from memory, but the focus of the camera is too indistinct to locate him actually speaking the words, and the volume of the dialogue is so high that I assumed it was overlaid from an upcoming scene, or that the camera would cut closer. Such treatment of dialogue is not always a problem, although in this scene it is highly unlikely that, on a moving ship (moving rather fast, looking at the sea), removed by distance from Jung or, as is later the case, listening to him from Freud’s point of audition, the clarity or volume would be as presented. The was noticeably jarring and, as the film was dragged down by a rather dull treatment of the subject matter, it made an emotional and intellectual connection with the film and characters even more difficult to sustain.
The field of psychoanalysis is incredibly exciting, expansive, and the modern mind takes much of its potential for granted, and might modify behaviour or expand our thoughts with a subconscious interpretation of psychoanalytic discourse. This is what makes it so interesting to think about a time when psychological awareness was not a part of everyday life. Unfortunately the restraint that Cronenberg demonstrates in A Dangerous Method is not so much a talent as a hindrance. There’s nothing to clutch, no way in to the film. In addition to the scant elements of psychoanalytic theory that are introduced only in brief, Sabina’s rehabilitation comes on far too quickly. I’m absolutely sure that hysteria founded in sexually perverse masochism does not come out in an initial consultation. All this just made it incredibly impersonal, a strange technique given that the subject matter is really about deep relationships. Cronenberg plays it safe here, where Jung of course did not. This was, on the whole, a very unfulfilling session.