A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg built his reputation on making challenging, boundary-breaking films which explore sexuality, violence and death. So it’s no surprise that he should be interested in the rupture between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung – though period drama is a radical departure for him. What is surprising is that this story hasn’t been told in film before, given the way so many film-makers have been influenced by Freud and the ideas of psychoanalysis.

Back in 1962, John Huston made Freud: The Secret Passion, starring Montgomery Clift in the title role, which is the only previous film about the father of psychoanalysis (his appearance in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure doesn’t really count). It was a deeply troubled shoot: Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the screenplay, but disagreed so sharply with Huston that he had his name removed from the credits, while Clift was having major personal problems, which Huston allegedly exploited during filming.

Desire and Danger

A Dangerous Method is a totally different entity from Huston’s film: it also concerns the beginnings of psychoanalysis (though it is set a little later), but the focus is on Jung rather than Freud. It is based on Christopher Hampton’s 2002 play The Talking Cure, which he originally wrote as a screenplay, based on John Kerr’s 1993 book, A Most Dangerous Method: The story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein.

A Dangerous Method
Image © Sony Pictures Classics/Lionsgate UK 2012. All rights reserved.

Like all Cronenberg’s films, A Dangerous Method prompted strong reactions. Many critics praised it, though were sharply divided over whether Keira Knightley’s performance as Sabina Spielrein was brilliant or terrible. Audiences were rather less enthusiastic, though. Fans of Cronenberg’s earlier body horror work were particularly disappointed by the overtly cerebral turn which he has taken (continuing with Cosmopolis), despite the fact that ideas have always been the most central thing for him. There is a cool, clinical aspect to much of the film, despite its emotionally charged subject matter. Presumably Cronenberg considered this to be the most appropriate tone for a consideration of these two men who were determined to bring a clinical approach to the pysche. What almost everyone agreed on is the quality of the excellent performances by Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, and Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud.

Practising the Talking Cure

The story begins in August 1904, with Sabina Spielrein being taken to the Burghölzli Psychiatric Clinic, Zurich, to be treated for hysteria. When she has her first meeting with Dr Jung the following day, she is surprised to hear that he simply wants her to talk. She convulses and contorts her body, and nervous tics almost prevent her getting her words out. Jung, however, is pleased to have a first subject on which to try out the ‘talking cure’, which he has heard that Freud is practising in Vienna, though he has no details as to the methodology. Spielrein yearns to be a doctor, so she starts assisting Jung in his experiments, revealing a marked psychological perceptiveness. Over time she begins to recover, and when she and Jung discover that they have very similar interests and perspectives, an attraction develops between them.

A Dangerous Method
Image © Sony Pictures Classics/Lionsgate UK 2012. All rights reserved.

By this point, Jung has been corresponding with Freud, and visits him in Vienna in 1907, where they have their famous thirteen-hour conversation. They animatedly discuss psychoanalysis, the interpretation of dreams, Spielrein’s case, and much more. Freud is impressed with Jung, and later refers a patient, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), to him, though warning Jung to be careful.

Gross is a highly intelligent – and neurotic – psychoanalyst, who candidly tells Jung about fathering several children by different women. "So," asks Jung, "you’re not a believer in monogamy?" Gross replies, "For a neurotic like myself, I can’t possibly imagine a more stressful concept." When Jung suggests that restraint may be desirable or necessary to help society run smoothly, Gross is unimpressed since it would make him ill and, he surmises, this is the reason that hospitals are full. The conversation concludes with Gross telling Jung, "If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my short life, it’s this: Never repress anything." This plants a seed in Jung’s mind which grows.


After returning from Vienna, Jung had told Spielrein that he found Freud "so persuasive, he’s so convincing. He makes you feel you should abandon your own ideas and simply follow in his wake." Now he is finding that Gross is having the same effect, and he tells Sabina that he is afraid of Gross’s power to convince him. It becomes increasingly clear that Jung is also absorbing ideas from Spielrein, which will become key aspects of his theory. Cronenberg is giving us a picture of someone who does not know his own mind and whose convictions, whether intellectual or moral, are easily changed.

Further conversation with Gross persuades Jung that he should not repress his desire for Spielrein, and they begin a passionate affair, which becomes sado-masochistic (there is no historical evidence for this, though the affair is clearly implied in the correspondence between the two of them). When he tries to bring it to an end, Sabina starts sending anonymous letters to Freud, to Jung’s wife Emma (Sarah Gadon), and even to her own mother.

A Dangerous Method
Image © Sony Pictures Classics/Lionsgate UK 2012. All rights reserved.

Many of Freud’s and Jung’s terms have entered common usage. We easily talk about psychological complexes, subconscious desires, and repression. But their ideas have also shaped western society in profound ways. Coming at the end of the rigidly buttoned-up Victorian era, the notion (expressed so starkly in the film by Otto Gross) that repressing one’s sexual desires may be psychologically harmful had immediate appeal for those who longed to be free of the prevailing morality. It provided justification for those – like Gross, Jung and Spielrein – who wanted to indulge their sexual appetites, while Gross suggests that Freud is obsessed with the sexual interpretation of psychological problems because he is no longer having any sex.

Yet Jung is conflicted. He is seduced by Gross’s insistence that "freedom is freedom", but he still feels that he has broken some sacred trust. This is not so much within his marriage, though he lies barefacedly in telling Emma that it is sacred, but within the doctor-patient relationship. It seems that Jung is ultimately more worried about disrupting the psychoanalytic process than about failing morally in any absolute sense. But perhaps, as the son of a Swiss Reformed pastor, he did also feel some residual moral guilt about his infidelity to Emma.

A Dangerous Method
Image © Sony Pictures Classics/Lionsgate UK 2012. All rights reserved.

Jung comes into conflict with Freud as well as struggling with his internal tensions. This begins over Jung’s interest in parapsychology, which Freud thinks is non-scientific and will only muddy the waters for psychoanalysis. But it intensifies when Freud confronts Jung with rumours that he is having an affair with a patient. At first the older man accepts Jung’s word that Spielrein is delusional, but she insists that Jung admit the truth to Freud. The rift becomes irreparable in Jung’s mind when, en route to America, Freud refuses to divulge a dream for Jung to analyse as it would threaten his authority. It is clear that they no longer trust each other.


The four main characters in the film all seem to be strongly motivated by self-interest. Gross is the most blatant, caring for no one but himself. Jung clearly does want to help his patients, but Sabina Spielrein is a trophy for him, proving his expertise in the talking cure, and that he is worthy of collaborating with Freud. Later, she becomes an outlet for his sexual urges, as well as a source of good ideas. Freud wants to be the revered father figure at the centre of a growing circle of acolytes: his ideas are to be accepted as correct; his reputation is all-important. Spielrein is barely concerned about anyone’s needs other than her own. She sets the agenda for their sexual encounters, and goes to considerable lengths to get her way.

Like every one else since humans first rejected God’s rule in Eden, these people find ways of rationalising and justifying their self-centredness. Jung is the only one who seems to have any doubts about his self-justification, perhaps because Jung is the only one who maintains some (albeit unorthodox) belief in a supernatural realm. The others have embraced philosophical naturalism, and so they are not answerable to any higher power for their actions. Without a God, there can be no absolute morality. Without a God only human beings can decide for themselves what is right and wrong. The question becomes, not ‘What is moral or immoral?’ but ‘What is helpful or harmful?’ If sexual restraint is equated with repression and is seen to be harmful, then it is all too easy to see sexual liberty as the solution.

A Dangerous Method
Image © Sony Pictures Classics/Lionsgate UK 2012. All rights reserved.

However, the freedom which Jung, Spielrein and Gross embrace is deeply harmful, to themselves and to others. Gross’s promiscuity may bring him some temporary satisfaction, but he leaves behind him a trail of women who realise that they have been valued only for their bodies rather than for love, including several single mothers who inevitably face social stigma, financial hardship and diminished prospects of a long-term relationship. Jung’s affair with Spielrein caused great pain to themselves, and to Emma Jung.

The problem is that we justify our actions to ourselves as harmless, without ever stopping to think of the ways in which harm develops over time, and ripples out affecting more and more people. Uninhibited selfishness, especially expressed sexually, eventually corrupts society as a whole. The legacy of ideas like these is felt powerfully in our own day, with high levels of promiscuity, broken relationships, single-parent families, and, of course, abortion. But having lost sight of any transcendent realm and of absolute morality, it seems to be inconceivable for many people that society functions best when we seek to serve others’ needs rather than our own.

True Desires

This isn’t about repressing our desires in psychologically damaging ways, but rather enlightening and training them. How could we ever know how to direct our desires? Is it even conceivable that there could be a right way of directing desire, of having a right object for desire? And does that imply that some desires are simply wrong? More than a century after psychoanalysis began to be a key influence on western society, such ideas seem, to many people, simply unbelievable.

A Dangerous Method
Image © Sony Pictures Classics/Lionsgate UK 2012. All rights reserved.

Yet, this problem, too, goes right back to Eden where human beings were first created to live in relationship with God, yet gave in to the temptation to desire something more than he had given them. The first human beings lived in total, unguarded intimacy with each other and with God, and had been given all the wisdom they needed to live and care for the creation on God’s behalf. But they were tempted to want what God knew was dangerous for them: the knowledge of good and evil. They knew the good, but by making themselves the ultimate arbiters of right and wrong in their lives, they came to know evil from the inside. From that point on, human desires were misdirected, because they no longer had the longing to know God at the very centre. Their actions broke the intimacy with God and with each other, bringing deception, shame, exploitation and violence into human relationships. It resulted in perfectly legitimate, God-given desires – including for sex – being twisted out of shape and being blown out of proportion. All of the neuroses that Jung and Freud identified, all the power-games, manipulation, betrayal and deception have their origins in that first turning away from God.

If this is true, then it opens up the wonderful opportunity to start re-orientating our desires, by grounding them all in a desire for God himself. In the Old Testament, King David wrote many poems expressing both this central longing, and also his dismay and regret over his misplaced ones. In one, he wrote, "Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires" (Psalm 37:4). The more we can find our satisfaction in God himself, the more we discover that we have what we really want and need. The impulse to express our other natural desires will not be repressed in some psychologically damaging way, but will be seen in right perspective – as something which is best expressed in God’s way or not at all.

Film title: A Dangerous Method
Keywords: Psychoanalysis, neurosis, desire, sex, temptation, morality
Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: Christopher Hampton, based on his play The Talking Cure
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Vincent Cassel
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics (USA); Lionsgate (UK)
Cinema Release Date: 23 November 2011 (USA); 10 February 2012 (UK)
Certificate: R (USA); 15 (UK) Contains strong sex

A Dangerous Method
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© 2012 Tony Watkins

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