It is my misfortune that my life means nothing to me without the joy of love, of tempestuous, eternally changing love… Return to me, in this moment of my need, some of the love and guilt and altruism which I was able to give to you at the time of your illness. Now it is I who am ill.
Uncompleted letter from C.G. Jung to Sabina Spielrein, 4 December 1908
I keep thinking about hysteria, how we depict it. When I first saw David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method last September I noted a fair bit of eye-rolling and presumptuous dismissal regarding Keira Knightley’s embodiment of Sabina Spielrein. Spielrein’s admittance to the Burghölzli psychiatric hospital, quite literally kicking and screaming all the way, jumpstarts the film and, it would seem, instantly made certain viewers uneasy. I guess some felt that Knightley was exaggerating Spielrein’s behavior, but I can’t help but think she got it just right. The early years of psychoanalysis coincided with a period in which hysteria remained a blanket diagnosis bestowed almost exclusively to women—it was considered a feminine condition. With this in the air, I can only imagine that being labeled hysterical was, in a way, a prompt to act out some collective idea of what hysterics are supposed to do. I don’t mean that Knightley’s Spielrein is anything less than genuinely traumatized; I simply suggest that the parameters of her behaviour are subject to context.
A Dangerous Method is out on DVD and blu-ray now, so I watched the film a third time. Those initial scenes with Spielrein were only more compelling, rich with details, each containing some aspect of the character’s psychic malaise. That moment when she’s asked her very first question by Michel Fassbender’s Jung, the brilliant young doctor who will cure her with Freud’s method, identify her sexual trauma, and become her secret lover somewhere along the way: jaw jutting, elbows arched in the roasted-chicken pose, the word “humiliation” yanked up from the depths of her viscera as though snagged on a fishhook. Even in relatively calmer moments, she seems trapped inside a state of ceaseless panic, caught, gasping for air, in the dragnet of some trawler that never sleeps. In terms of finding a balance, Knightley punctuates the early scenes with a great deal of mischievous humour, and later in the film she will develop her Spielrein into an articulate and innovative young doctor in her own right, successfully negotiating precarious relationships personal and professional and coming to terms with her knotty desires, while never quite losing traces of the wild neurotic we first met.
Another thing I began to appreciate only more on a third viewing: Cronenberg and his editor Ronald Sanders’ knack for knowing when to exit one scene and enter the next, cutting from the image of a hand to one of handwriting, from one coat to another, from Jung commenting on the limitations of certain doctors to an arresting outdoor portrait of Vincent Cassel’s Otto Gross, the other brilliant young Freudian analyst whose radical notions about polygamy and freedom-at-all-costs threaten to compromise the new science he might otherwise help to legitimize. The Jung-Gross friendship, built on a sort of tag-team analysis (Jung would analyze Gross and then Gross would turn around and analyze Jung), is one of the film’s jewels. It’s sort of sad yet perfect when Gross, not even wearing a shirt, climbs a ladder and goes over the high stone wall surrounding the Burghölzli and disappears from the narrative. Once he’s gone it’s as though, to use a very Cronenbergian metaphor, Jung becomes infected by Gross’ provocative assertions. And never quite recovers. The belief in mysticism seems to surge in Jung as he slips deeper and deeper into anxieties founded in insatiable ambition, sexual-romantic dissatisfaction, and the feeling of being unmoored from his great but now frustrated father figure—the film implies that it’s this mysticism above all that divides the pragmatic Freud from his protégé. (And Cronenberg the materialist seems to relate more to Freud here than Jung.
I’m grateful for Entertainment One’s handsomely transferred home video release of A Dangerous Method, which will hopefully draw more viewers. But the extras, or rather the lack thereof, is disappointing. There are brief, choppy, annoying edited interviews with cast and crew that never let the subjects get very far into anything. And there’s no Cronenberg audio commentary track, which strikes me as a misreading of the sort of things that make people buy DVDs—even those who didn’t particularly care for A Dangerous Method might be persuaded to pick up the disc if it had been endowed with a commentary track, given that Cronenberg’s one of the most articulate filmmakers out there and has a way of making even dubious choices seem thoughtful. Those in Canada who want the disc with commentary will have to buy the US Sony Pictures Classics edition.