I won't claim to have a great background about the theories of Sigmund Freud vs. Carl Jung. From what I know, Freud believed that a great deal of a person's neuroses were based on sex, while Jung had a more mystical bent, believing that archetypes from our ancestral pasts influenced our thinking today. If I'm wrong don't hold it against me: my experience with psychiatry is surprisingly limited. A Dangerous Method is the story of how these two great thinkers eventually split, and not surprisingly, a woman came between them (or rather their thinking).
It is 1904, and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly) has gone crazy, or rather, is sent to a hospital for treatment for mental issues. Her doctor is Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) who is a proponent of the 'talking cure': having the patients talk and via that dig into the source of their troubles. Jung appears happily married to Emma (Sara Gadon) and with the hopes of a family, in particular a son. Jung, however, also harbors a hope to meet and correspond with the famous Dr. Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), to whom Jung aspires to follow.
The next year, Jung and Freud do meet, and they begin to explore the depths of the mind. However, Sabina (who has gone from patient to assistant as she aspires to be a doctor herself) cannot appear to mask her fixation with sex and with Jung. Jung also has the whispers of patient Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell), a libertine who never shrinks from upsetting bourgeois convention to fulfill his own sexual pursuits. With Otto's words in his ear, and with Sabina's invitations into an affair, Jung takes his own version of the talking cure: he talks himself into taking her as his mistress. Sabina has her kinky side: she likes to get whipped, and the good doctor goes along with it (though he doesn't look like he's getting any pleasure out of beating her).
Soon, even Freud hears about this, and at first the respectable Jung denies this, but later when Sabina threatens to go very public, he confesses. Emma won't let him go, he doesn't want to go, and while later on they do have a brief resumption of their trysts Jung keeps things for the most part professional. However, the divide between Jung and Freud continues: Freud believes nothing exists outside the material realm (which goes with his atheism) and thinks people cannot be 'fixed', merely 'treated'. Jung, however, believes that there are no coincidences, that dreams literally can come true (or at least have the power of prediction) and that there is something more than can be dreamt in Freud's philosophy (to coin a phrase). The ultra-rational Freud and the slightly more mystical Jung formally break, and despite Sabina's efforts to reconcile their two ways of thinking the break is permanent.
Ultimately, we learn that Jung has taken another mistress (to which Emma turns a blind eye), and that while his life ended peacefully Sabina was eventually hunted down and murdered by the Nazis in the Second World War and Freud was chased out of Austria, dying in exile in London.
A Dangerous Method, stripped of its intellectual veneer, is at its heart the story of a fling, a middle-aged man getting his freak on with a pretty (and pretty unstable) young thing. Allow me to digress to say that while I'm not trained in the matters of exploring the dark recesses of the human mind, I disagree with how I understand Freud's view that sex (and/or its suppression) is at the core of everything.
When Jung begins his affair with Sabina, we're suppose to believe it is because he wants release from his socio-sexual repression to embrace the release of his desires. For my view, I think it is selfishness pure and simple that prompts these sorts of liaisons, not repression. Certainly Otto was not repressed at all: on the contrary he appears to be totally liberated from any sense of right or wrong and only satisfies his own desires. As I wrote in my notes, "Otto's not crazy, he's horny". Jung took a mistress not to free himself but because he wanted to fulfill his own desires. What Sabina offered was a vehicle to pursue those desires, not a release from them. She invited, he accepted--it isn't all that complicated. With Sabina, he now had an opportunity to indulge himself, free from the restraints of a married life. There's nothing suppressed about it: he did it because he wanted to, no more, no less.
In short, I never accepted the idea that people were repressed or suppressing themselves or their desires, thus causing them all sorts of problems, particular mental. I think it's the reverse: it's in liberating themselves from any sense of restraint that is the cause of their problems, particularly mental. We live in an age that is far more liberated than any before: people flaunt their sexuality of all stripes all over the place. There is no sense of shame about anything related to sex: Fassbender was touted as a strong candidate for a Best Actor Oscar nomination playing a sex addict (despite the idea that a man would get an Oscar while showing his penis is on the face of it laughable). Today a gay couple can be open to where they can be just as annoying as a straight couple practically having sex in front of others. People today give their physical appearance all sorts of twists: cheek piercings and facial tattoos are so prevalent that dress codes are now modified to meet the prevailing standards rather than changing appearance to meet current dress codes.
Yet I digress, and in fairness I may not have Freud's thinking right. I'm willing to admit that. However, A Dangerous Method to my mind is less about the growth of psychoanalysis and the separation between the excessively rational Freud and the more ethereal Jung than a story of a man who attempts to justify taking a woman who likes to be whipped as his floozy.
What one should think on while watching A Dangerous Method are on the positives. David Cronenberg gave great attention to recreating the pre-World War I Vienna, in particular with the sets. Jung's methodology in studying the core issues that trouble people's minds are well-brought on screen. Christopher Hampton's screenplay (based on his own play The Talking Cure, which is based on John Kerr's book A Most Dangerous Method) does a good job of showing how Jung and Freud are growing apart in their thinking. The best scene is when Freud and Jung are at a conference, discussing the cause of Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten's belief in monotheism. The subtext between them as they state their views on how perhaps the Pharaoh's views on his father affected his views on God (and thus supported each of their views on psychology) is so well spoken and well-acted by Mortensen and Fassbender. It's clearly understood that while they may be discussing Akhenaten, they are really lobbing critiques on their views on individual vs. collective unconscious.
Both Fassbender and Mortensen play their characters excellently: the former a man who is searching for something outside himself that will lead him to a breakthrough in helping those with troubled minds, and the latter as one who knows there is nothing outside of himself at all. Neither is portrayed as wrong or as a villain to the other's search, but more as two people who start from a certain point only to end up on different roads, where at times their professional respect for the other's accomplishments are masked by their stubborn refusal to accept that the other may have a point. Knightley is a curious fish in A Dangerous Method: sometimes her physicality during her moments of instability veer dangerously close to parody: her jutting out of the chin, the way her body contorts to resembled a beheaded chicken. I also worry that when Jung breaks with her sexually, she comes close to issuing the Edwardian version of "I'm not going to be ignored" a la Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Still, one has to give her credit for not holding back on portraying the negative of Sabina (if even though at times her fixation on getting whipped is almost cause for laughter).
I find myself disagreeing with both Freud and Jung. I disagree with Freud in that I don't think it all goes to sex. I disagree with Jung in that unlike him, I do believe there are times when things are merely coincidental. I think I disagree with both of them in that I'm not sold on the idea that dreams reflect what my conscious mind pushes down or that I can dream the future (as A Dangerous Method strongly suggests that Jung dreamt the beginning of World War I). I doubt anyone would put me in the same league as Carl Jung or Sigmund Freud, and while A Dangerous Method at times goes more into Jung's affairs and the sadomasochistic side of it than in the battle of the minds entre Jung et Freud, as a film A Dangerous Method is a well-made, well-acted period piece on a more intellectual subject than usual.
For that, the film is worth a look. However, I still hold that perhaps there should have been less attention paid to the spanking of Sabina for her own kicks and more into how Jung came to see a spiritual side to psychology that Freud would never accept. After all, I do think that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Finally: a point of agreement between the good doctor and yours truly.