Bright Lights Film Journal

The Future of a Delusion: On David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011)

“Cronenberg’s method, it seems, is perfectly suited for making truly historical dramas, stripping away our tendency to read individuals through their writings in something like the way diseases in his films strip his characters down to their essences.”

There is no question that a period bio-pic with A-list actors and a literate adapted screenplay is not the first subject that comes to mind in a David Cronenberg film. Indeed, it appears to have been an editorial requirement to begin every review, interview, and feature on A Dangerous Method with some kind of exclamation or disclaimer to that effect regarding the erstwhile “Baron of Blood.” However impressive his recent run of films has been — and A History of Violence and Eastern Promises were very impressive indeed — Cronenberg is certainly making different movies than either the classic exploitation body horror of the ’70s, from Shivers to Scanners­, or the art film shockers of the late ’80s and ’90s, from Dead Ringers to Crash. And A Dangerous Method is even quite a change from Violence and Promises, notwithstanding the fortuitous inclusion of Viggo Mortensen, who stepped in to play Sigmund Freud when Austrian actor Christoph Waltz was forced to drop out. Nevertheless, the first thing to observe about Cronenberg’s portrait of the explosive conjuncture of three key figures in the origins of psychoanalysis — its originator Freud (Mortensen), its most famous and influential heretic Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and the more recently rediscovered patient-cum-analyst Sabine Spielrein (Keira Knightley) — is that it has quite a number of precedents in his own distinctive oeuvre, notwithstanding the ongoing identification of that oeuvre with body horror, science fiction horror, or, more recently, neo-noir. Cronenberg in fact has at least three historical dramas on his resume: the 1950s of William Burroughs’s hallucinatory writer’s life in Naked Lunch (1991), the 1960s espionage scandal involving French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and male Peking opera singer Shi Pei Pu in M. Butterfly (1993), and the 1970s life and drug-fueled death of identical twin gynecologists Stewart and Cyril Marcus in Dead Ringers (1988), as well as the past/present psychological drama Spider (2002). In addition to Burroughs’s landmark experimental novel Naked Lunch, David Henry Huang’s Tony Award-winning play M. Butterfly, and Patrick McGrath’s 1991 novel Spider, Cronenberg also adapted J. G. Ballard’s cult classic Crash to the screen in 1996. All of these films featured prominent Hollywood actors, from Jeremy Irons (Dead Ringers and M. Butterfly) and Ralph Fiennes (Spider)1 to James Spader, Holly Hunter, and Rosanna Arquette (Crash); Mortensen, of course, featured in Cronenberg’s last two features.

In taking on Freud and Jung, two towering cultural icons of the twentieth century, A Dangerous Method is most closely related to Naked Lunch and Crash. The difference is that the prior two films were made from screenplays by Cronenberg himself, adapted from novels that were very close to his heart. Although certainly conversant with psychoanalysis (in the book-length interview Cronenberg on Cronenberg, he cites Freud or Freudian theory a good half dozen times), Cronenberg appears less to identify with the theories per se than to be concerned with what it means to live in a post-Freudian society. In particular, his films have long asked what it means to take the unconscious seriously, to write with “complete freedom” (C on C 158). As he put it discussing Method, the work of art functions not as therapy for the artist, but as analyst for the artist’s society: “for me, art is an exploration of the human condition to see what’s going on. In a way, it’s like what psychoanalysis does. An analyst is presented with an official version of reality by his patient, and then he says, ‘let’s see what’s really going on, let’s see what’s under the surface that you’re not able to access. Let me help you access that.’ And I think art does that with society, too. You have the official version of reality and you say, ‘that’s great, but what’s really going on? What’s really making things happen and why do things go wrong when they go wrong?'”2 Rather than two figures, Burroughs and Ballard, that, like Cronenberg, remained transgressive their entire lives and in all of their writings, Method captures its subjects at a moment of crisis and innovation, even though all three figures would soon become established if not downright conservative.

Cronenberg alludes to this conservatism already within the film as part of Mortensen’s depiction of Freud’s intellectual dogmatism faced with the younger Jung’s challenges to the orthodoxy. He has less to say explicitly about the innate conservatism of Jung’s own turn to metaphysics, but he does conclude the film with a moving scene between a now married, settled, and pregnant Spielrein in what appears to be a last meeting with her former lover and analyst Jung. Both are settled in a way that could scarcely be said of them earlier in the film. There is resolution in Spielrein’s passage into normality, even wisdom, from her dramatic entrance at the film’s opening as a howling, incoherent, and contorted hysteric; however, there is also an underlying sense of an opportunity lost in that same pregnancy. Because Cronenberg subtly elides the passage of time in this film, I wondered for an instant the first time I saw the film if she was carrying Jung’s child. In a classic narrative, it would easily have worked that way, a child of adultery fulfilling Spielrein’s discussion with Jung of Wagner’s Siegfried as a hero born of the sin of incest. And indeed, the scene raises the specter of that image as its last word: Jung speculates wistfully that it should have been his child. Spielrein responds with the emphatic but slightly contorted “yes” to which she has several times earlier answered Jung’s tergiversations.

Childbearing and parenting indeed play a surprisingly prominent role in the film, one that carries over from A History of Violence and Eastern Promises after a long prior absence from Cronenberg’s film. (And when they had appeared — in the fertility clinic of the Mantle twins in Dead Ringers; in a memorable nightmare sequence in The Fly, and as the central plotline of The Brood — they had been resolutely traumatic). There are two main threads to the theme: actual pregnancies — Jung’s wife begins the film pregnant and her life is centered around childbearing until the final scene, when she has apparently finished. Spielrein, too, apparently wishes to bear Jung’s child — the Siegfried motif — and concludes the film pregnant. The young libertine analyst Otto Gross provides Jung with a lengthy account of the legitimate and illegitimate children he has gifted his apparently unappreciative father. And father figures loom large — not surprising in a film on Freud. The young Spielrein is committed to Jung’s clinic by her father, who is also the source of her hysteria; Gross is apparently obsessed with his father; Jung refers to Freud as his “father figure” in the letter in which he confesses his affair with Spielrein. In a key scene of defiance, Jung disproves Freud’s theory of Oedipal conflict as the origin of monotheism, causing the elder man to fall to the floor in a faint (a scene, like many in the film, drawn directly from life).

But much of this imagery is about missed opportunities. The wife’s first two children, disappointingly, are girls, and they prevent Jung from making a lecture tour. Freud comments on the financial and domestic burden of his six children. The film in general is as much about missed opportunities as it is of triumphant discoveries. “Maybe next time,” Ballard says to his wife Catherine as they make love after the car crash that concludes Cronenberg’s adaptation of Ballard’s novel, framing the entire film as an inconclusive search for sexual release and emotional fulfillment. Dangerous Method is about first learning how to un-repress and then learning how to repress all over again. Jung liberates Spielrein in the opening movement of the film by making her a guinea pig of the talking cure, listening to her ravings rather than treating them with ice baths and confinement. The first step is verbal: their talk exceeds all bounds of propriety and decorum, extraordinarily frank and intimate in its subject matter and its vocabulary. Cronenberg deftly captures the paradox of free interchange within a society that had been bound by 700 years of repression (as he characterizes the Austro-Hungarian empire) in the first meeting between Freud and Jung in Vienna, brought together by the latter’s treatment of Spielrein. Opening in an intimate two-shot side by side at a dining room table, their conversation ranges freely through the gamut of sexual motivations and instincts characteristic of Freudian theory as Jung helps himself just as freely to the meats and other foodstuffs held out to him on a tray by a servant. Freud makes a brief, and evidently ironic, remark about how Jung should not worry about censoring his language, as everyone at the table is used to such discussions, and the film cuts to a reverse shot showing some dozen family members of all ages ranged around the enormous dining room table of which the scene of what we had thought to be Jung and Freud’s private tête-à-tête (and private meal) had occupied simply one wide end. Their intimate colloquy, in other words, is overheard by and has an impact on the entire family circle and society that surrounds them.

Dangerous Method may be the first Cronenberg movie in which words come prior to actions. Even in Crash, sex, talk, and metal machines come simultaneously. Everywhere else, the body expresses what the mind represses, and Cronenberg’s body horror makes metaphor out of the mental transformations wrought by psychoanalysis. Cronenberg’s characters have tended to act out what they un-repress rather than just talk about it. But we have always known that repression is driving what is happening because of the perversity and horror of what is expressed: a man transforming gene by gene into a fly; individuals possessed by parasites that free them of any remnant of conscience; twins who express their unhealthy attachment by physically severing themselves from each other; a man whose transgressive viewing habits lead him to grow a VCR in his stomach and a gun in his forearm. Dangerous Method does begin with a kind of body horror in Spielrein’s hysterics — Cronenberg has even described Knightley’s disconcerting ability to project her lower jaw far out from beneath her face as “an inexpensive special effect,”3 but it’s the starting point of the film rather than its raison d’être. Instead of watching Knightley’s character gradually succumb to her disease or sink into madness, as in the typical Cronenberg (and horror genre) scenario, we watch her overcome it through the force of her own mind, and we watch Knightley subside from the second-coming of vintage Isabelle Adjani (circa Adèle H and Possession) to something resembling her costume-drama comfort zone of Pride and Prejudice.

Granted, that trajectory passes through a very uneasy middle zone in the film, set off by the catalyst of gentle libertine analyst Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel in fine if predictable form), channeling something out of the counterculture from which Naked Lunch and Crash would emerge later in the century. Gross questions all assumptions until proven wrong, including especially those of propriety and of going against desire, and succeeds in persuading Jung to act on his desire for Spielrein. Here, as elsewhere in the film, Cronenberg’s deft elisions steer the emphasis away from the melodrama of adultery and into character analysis. Several times we see Jung break off the affair only to see it recur later on, the presumable soul-searching and conscience-rending cut out altogether. Rather than the evidence of Jung’s transgressions, then, the sex functions, as so often in Cronenberg, as core presentation of character and of ideas. Here, too, the masochistic sex scenes have a provenance within Cronenberg’s longtime interest in transgressive sexuality. Dead Ringers includes a scene with Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold) tied to the bed with surgical tubes and clamps by her Mantle lover. In Videodrome, Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) mixes cigarette burns with sex before choosing the more extreme options within Videodrome itself. And Edie Stall (Maria Bello) emerges from the bottom of rough stairway sex with Tom (Mortensen) covered in bruises. The ambivalent charge in each of these scenes, as in the analogous scenes in A Dangerous Method, is that the women are strong, autonomous characters, the sex is consensual (with the possible exception of Edie), and its scenarios have been well motivated within the film’s narrative and character development. This in itself was a break from Cronenberg’s earliest horror films, Shivers and Rabid, where transgressive and uncontrollable sexual desires emerge as the result of viruses. The audience response remains ambivalent, but the ambivalence regards the loss of repression and control rather than the choice of action taken by the characters.

In a key scene late in the film, Spielrein journeys to Vienna to meet Freud and present her work to his circle of psychoanalysts, and Cronenberg betrays his sympathies in a film that stands out for the studiedly neutral presentation of its characters. Cronenberg doesn’t show us that scene, choosing instead a closeted intellectual duel in the master’s study, where, after accepting Freud’s praise and grudging acceptance that she may be right about the death drive, she raises the question of the break with Jung, defending his motives:

Spielrein: “He’s trying to find some way forward, so that we don’t just have to tell our patients this is why you are the way you are. He wants to be able to say ‘we can show you what it is you might want to be able to become.'”
Freud: “Playing God, in other words. We have no right to do that. The world is as it is. Understanding and accepting that is the way to psychic health. What good can we do if our aim is simply to replace one delusion with another.”
Spielrein: “Well, I agree with you.”

Cronenberg’s films are realist in exactly the way that Freud is a realist in this scene. He insists only on showing the world as it is, without judging or pointing “some way forward” from what he has seen. And, indeed, one could say that psychoanalysis is so fundamental to Cronenberg’s work precisely for its provision for a “reality” often impossible to believe. Cronenberg’s films have long been constructed on the premise of treating the unbelievable as if it were real; he has long insisted on showing the horror he wants his audience to imagine because if he didn’t show them they would never believe it. In this sense, one could say that A Dangerous Method is metacinematic, harkening back in particular to the created worlds of eXistenZ, and the old chestnut from the 19th century: what’s the job of the artist, to tear down the old gods, or also to produce new spectacles and new illusions to assuage the loss of the ones you killed? And it’s not hard to see in the distinction drawn between Jung and Freud (and Spielrein) in the above dialogue a distinction between Hollywood filmmaking (“replacing one delusion with another”) and Cronenberg’s peculiarly non-Hollywood realism of “the world as it is.” As the director once famously put it, “I don’t have a moral plan. I’m Canadian.”

Cronenberg’s films have been rigorously non-judgmental about their characters’ actions from the beginning of his career, and that attitude holds true for A Dangerous Method. Sure, Spielrein emerges as the heroine of the film and Jung, despite his brilliance and idealism, is in the end revealed as a self-satisfied bourgeois. Still, the film refuses to pass judgment on either of the two, or on Freud. Similarly, it deftly limns the Jewish identity of Spielrein and Freud, and the bond it creates between them, while refusing to make that identity fully responsible for anything that happens, anymore than it would hold Jung’s class and religion directly responsible for his conservatism.4 People do not act identically to their ideas. Instead, we are watching adults having ideas and making complicated choices in full awareness of the consequences of the actions they are taking. That those adults happen to be Freud, Jung, and Spielrein creates an effect similar to that of watching the character William S. Burroughs in Naked Lunch, but without the distancing device of the prosthetics that realize the hallucinations. A Dangerous Method is bracingly real; it is faithful to the history and spirit of psychoanalysis while sidestepping any Freudian doctrine or dogma beyond the dictum cited above. I watched the movie with a friend who cut her teeth on the writings and culture of psychoanalysis. She was astonished and jubilant to discover that, to her mind, the film perfectly captures these figures, without a wrong note or a single miscue. The anecdotes are all real, the language and nearly all of the scenes drawn directly from the letters. Cronenberg’s method, it seems, is perfectly suited for making truly historical dramas, stripping away our tendency to read individuals through their writings in something like the way diseases in his films strip his characters down to their essences. Who knew? The more I think about this film, the more my grudging admiration for it grows. It’s exhilarating to see Cronenberg pare his style this close to the bone, even as the fan in me yearns for the delusory shocks of yesteryear. But that’s the paradox of psychoanalysis in a nutshell, and one can only applaud him for having captured its contradictions so perfectly.

  1. Fiennes, coincidentally, played Jung in the initial 2003 theatrical run in London of Christopher Hampton’s play, The Talking Cure (the source for the screenplay). []
  2. Anne Thompson, “Interview: Cronenberg Talks Intellectual Menage a Trois A Dangerous Method, Knightley’s Bondage,” Indiewire 26 Nov. 2011: http://blogs.indiewire.com/thompsononhollywood/interview-david-cronenberg-talks-a-dangerous-method#. []
  3. Liam Lacey, “Cronenberg on Switching Gears for A Dangerous Method,” Globe and Mail 11 Sept. 2011: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/tiff/interviews-and-features/cronenberg-on-switching-gears-for-a-dangerous-method/article2161477/. []
  4. Cronenberg only recently begun to incorporate his own Jewish identity, and its paradoxical presence and nonexistence in his family, explicitly into his filmmaking, most notably in his bitingly satirical 2007 short film, At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World, in which he played the title role. []