We need more movies about philosophers. I can only think of very few examples to mention, but David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, a 2011 film about the rivalry between early psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, shows that the format can work. This is an intelligent and straightforward narrative work, based on Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure which was itself based on the book A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein by John Kerr.
A Dangerous Method stars Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud, and Keira Knightley as a severely disturbed young psychoanalytic patient named Sabina Spielrein who would eventually defeat her demons and become Jung’s illicit lover, Jung and Freud’s intellectual partner, and an innovative psychologist in her own right.
The passage of fetchingly hysterical Sabina Spielrein to mature and productive work as a psychologist forms this movie’s basic plot, and the famous rivalry between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud swirls around Sabina’s success story. The menage a trios plot frame probably helped to make this film possible (a conventional love story always helps an ideological dispute go down) but unfortunately the romantic subtext doesn’t particularly gel at any point, and the inevitable comparison to Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (or Paul Mazursky’s wonderful American knockoff Willie and Phil) doesn’t help. Kiera Knightley gets to chew on a lot of furniture in the opening scenes, but once she is cured there is only tepid chemistry between her and the stiff, dignified Carl Jung. This is the least satisfying aspect of A Dangerous Method, and perhaps better chemistry between actors could have helped. (We know that David Cronenberg can film great love scenes; sparks flew like crazy between Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum in his best film, The Fly.)
Sparks do fly here between Fassbender’s shy, hesitant Jung and Mortensen’s intense, domineering Freud. A Dangerous Method wastes no time getting to their core conflict: Freud saw sexuality as the key to every mental illness, while his younger protege searched for wider and more general causes. When the two first meet in Freud’s office (decorated, as seen above, with a wonderful array of significant objects that feel positively Jungian), they already feel the tension of their eventual break. They banter about whether or not Freud’s place in the field of psychoanalysis resembles that of Columbus (who saw the shore of a new world, but did not know what shore it was) or Galileo or perhaps Moses, with Jung as his Joshua.
Jung is disappointed to find Freud locked into a defensive and embattled stance against the critics of psychoanalysis, and he gently refuses Freud’s urgent invitations to become a partisan in this cultural battle. Jung’s interest in the social nature of consciousness and the possible validity of religious impulse alienates Freud. The break as depicted in this film matches exactly the story known to historians of the movement, and is presented with more clarity than theatricality. Cronenberg’s artistic restraint is admirable, though perhaps a cinematic flight of fancy or two might have actually helped this work to soar. As it stands, the most emotional moment in the movie comes at the very end, when it is revealed how various heroes of this story were suddenly destroyed in World War Two.
Was the promise of psychoanalytic research itself lost in that disastrous war? I liked A Dangerous Method best as a reminder of the importance of the mission that inspired both Freud and Jung (and other early psychologists like Otto Gross, who also appears within this film’s menage). I have written about Carl Jung on this blog once or twice, but not as much as I would like to. His importance is barely recognized in the world today, his reputation nebulous, his ideas considered quaint. His greatest idea was to explore the collective unconscious — the ways in which we think, feel and act in groups rather than as individuals. This is a vitally important project that has been largely abandoned since the murderous maelstrom of the mid 20th Century. It was not abandoned because it was not important. Perhaps it was abandoned because it was too important.
Carl Jung was once massively famous, but when his name today comes up the context is often biographical or artistic, as when books like his curious creative work The Red Book are newly published. But it is not Carl Jung the person who is most important today — rather it is the project of understanding the gigantic but often invisible influence that collective consciousness has on individual human existence that is important, and needs to be carried on. Perhaps it’s a good thing that David Cronenberg’s film A Dangerous Method presents Carl Jung as such a bland character. The real importance of Carl Jung is not in his personality, but in the forgotten project he began.