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Monday, January 30, 2012

A Dangerous Method

The method being referred to in A Dangerous Method (2011) is psychoanalysis, as pioneered by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). The danger referred to is that of freeing people from their sexual repressions. The film revolves around the relationship between Freud and his younger colleague, Carl Jung (1875-1961), and the relationship between him and Sabina Spielrein, his former patient and eventual lover and colleague. She also had an affair with Freud, but it was not shown in the film. Keira Knightley plays the Russian woman a bit too strongly in the first few scenes. In terms of the acting, Knightley exaggerates facial contortions as if fishing for an Oscar out of sheer emotionality. In terms of the narrative, Spielrein’s “transformation,” or cure, is hard to take as credible because it is so drastic within a year or two. Before long, she is behaving completely normal and even attending medical school. The film’s merits lie not with the acting, but, rather, with the intellectual content, whose salience and integration into a good narrative is rare in Hollywood. It is due to this feature that the film is apt to stay with a viewer for some time.

For example, the Russian woman had been beaten by her father when she was a girl. She tells Jung that the experience of being beaten used to excite her sexually. When she and Jung began their affair, she told him to punish her, which he dutifully did (though he did seem to enjoy it, as the sex with his wife was always “tender”). Perhaps Jung’s own animus and anima had each found a home. One of the issues explored in the movie is whether freeing up the woman not to repress what excited her constituted progress toward mental health. A rather free-spirited colleague of Freud and Jung provides the affirmative argument, while Jung is more hesitant (even as he moves from spanking to a belt).

I was surprised that none of the psychiatrists in the film voiced the view that the woman’s “excitement” in being beaten might be a misdirected or misinterpreted desire to recover her father or have the father she never had, emotionally speaking. In other words, the feeling of being hit represented that of her father that she had, so she was drawn to it. If I’m right, the underlying desire was not sexual.

How many women are “attracted” to “bad boys” without realizing that the desire is to recover a father by means of the only thing “father” had meant? Ultimately, the alley is a dead-end. The woman does not get her father back, or even the feeling of having one, emotionally-speaking. Is freeing up a woman from repressing a dead-end a good thing? Does it help her get what she really wants? I think the answer is rather obviously no.

Aside from the questions revolving around Jung’s former patient and lover, the film discusses the interesting question of whether a new field can afford to “take risks,” such as in Jung’s interest in parapsychology and religion. His contribution to the psychology of religion is significant—more so than Freud’s Totem and Taboo. However, Freud voices a legitimate point that the emphasis on sexual explanation in psychoanalysis would be than more than enough scandal in the second decade of the twentieth century, so soon after the Victorian era. At about the same time, or a decade or two earlier, Nietzsche’s controversial writings had been very controversial, particularly on religion. Adding a plethora of sexual interpretation to dreams would indeed arouse plenty of resistance. This debate played out as relations between Freud and Jung became increasingly strained before they parted company altogether.

Both with regard to the question of repression and a “cure” and that of how a new firm should develop, the filmmaker did an excellent job in grounding the ideas to characterization. While I would have enjoyed a PBS special on the ideas themselves, integrating theories around narrative and characters is useful both in terms of understanding and as a fruitful avenue for Hollywood, which could be accused of putting out too many mindless action flicks that catch the biggest market segment and allow for merchandizing. Another film from 2011 that effectively integrates theory with narrative and characterization is Hugo.