"They were experimenting on themselves," says David Cronenberg, with no small amount of satisfaction, about the psychoanalytic all-stars of his superb new film, A Dangerous Method. It's the dawn of the 20th century, and we are present for the messy birth of psychoanalysis as handsome, ambitious Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) puts into practice the radical ideas of his outspoken mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and takes extra-special care of his first talking-cure patient, the brilliant, hot, hysterical Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). Trysts with Spielrein and rifts with Freud follow, in a meticulous, electric costume drama of adultery and rivalry, shot through with self-examination and the rippling risks of acknowledging one's own desire.
"They were studying themselves — when they had sex, when they had dreams, when they ate," Cronenberg says in a recent interview at Manhattan's Regency Hotel. John Kerr first fleshed out that fermentation process in his 1994 chronicle A Most Dangerous Method; Christopher Hampton then dramatized it for stage — and now screen.
From the man-to-mutant transformation in The Fly to the macabre gynecologists of Dead Ringers, Cronenberg is a peculiarly good match for Freud's ethos of voicing the unspeakable — sexual and other bodily functions, taboo attractions and so on. For years, the director's eagerness to affirm and explore the body has made him one of the foremost cinematic thinkers about not just carnage but also carnality. Arguably, Freudian frankness and all that it unleashed was as shocking and alien in its time as the fetish in Cronenberg's J.G. Ballard adaptation Crash — fucking with cars — is in ours.
"It was an amorphous, moving, volatile concept," Cronenberg says of the eponymous method, the talking cure. But "what attracted me to these characters was that their ideas were not just abstractions. They were ways you could live your life, or improve your life, or heal you if you needed healing."
Even in the throes of passion with Jung, burgeoning analyst Spielrein is depicted as a diligent observer: Her experience was material, too. "That's why I have Sabina looking at herself in the mirror when she's being whipped. She's enjoying it, but she's also studying herself."
A Dangerous Method, opening next week, captures the figureheads of psychoanalysis at a very particular moment in their history. The neat, bespectacled Fassbender embodies the naïveté and ambition of a 30-something Jung, cheating on his rich Swiss wife, while the middle-aged Freud comes across with urbane self-possession and appealing wit, but also a growing wariness of his chosen successor. Freud wasn't worried about Jung's philandering — in fact, his other potential protégé, the neurotically depraved Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), routinely beds his patients. And, since "Freud keeps writing about this great treatment, but he doesn't tell us how to do it," says Cronenberg, "you can make a case for Otto Gross to say: 'Why can't we have sex with our patients? Maybe that is a good thing?' " What alarmed Freud about Jung was the deception involved and, later, Jung's forays into the spiritual, which threatened to undercut what Freud had worked so hard to present to the public: psychoanalysis as science.
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"Where [Jung] was going was [toward] a pre-Christian, Aryan mysticism," Cronenberg explains. Which brings us to the film's unheralded dramatic tension: Jung's Protestant (and through marriage, wealthy) background and Freud's inherently precarious situation as a Jew in Vienna. The film's most shockingly candid moment might not be Knightley's much-discussed, convulsive full-body performance, but rather Freud's warning to Spielrein, a Russian Jew, once her affair with Jung has gone south.
Quoting from his own film: " 'Put not your trust in Aryans. We're Jews, and we'll always be Jews.' He did say that to her," says Cronenberg, who is Jewish and who unnerved Cannes audiences in 2007 with the short At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World, which featured the director holding a gun to his head, preparing to kill himself on television as background commentators talked about Jews and the movies. "What we don't get into is Jung at some point said that Freudian analysis only works for Jews."
In other words, Cronenberg presents the social reality of Europe at the time as a powerful counterpoint to Freud's implicitly democratic world of common human urges. Soon after the film's events, of course, the continent would be swept by the mind-boggling violence of World War I ("ideology in the service of tribal barbarity," as Cronenberg grimly puts it), and the postscripts that precede the credits don't mince words about what happened even later: Spielrein was killed by Nazis in Russia and Freud was chased to London, while Jung lived out his life, never having to leave Zurich.
For a director who creates worlds supercharged by the potential of the flesh (and whose experimentation seems set to continue with his adaptation of Don DeLillo's slim day-in-the-life-of-a-millionaire oddity Cosmopolis), it's the hard historical fact this time that comes radically to the fore.