not in our stars, but in ourselves
When I fancy an actor, as I often do, I watch anything and everything I can get my filthy mitts on. It’s been going on with Christoph Waltz for a while now (and it will lead me to see that silly looking Epic when it comes out later this month, I’m sorry to say), and now it’s begun with Michael Fassbender. Seeing Jane Eyre (2011) last week exacerbated a process that had already started due to Prometheus (2012) and X-Men: First Class (2011) both being on HBO every other day, apparently. (Sometimes having 800 channels can be a real liability.) Since I had heard moderately promising things about A Dangerous Method (2011), and since I am interested in exploring the differences between Freud and Jung – even if I ultimately dismiss both of them – I thought it would be a good way to spend a couple of hours.
Ha. Hahaha. Hahahahahahahahaha! Haha. No.
The film opens with Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) having a fit in a coach as she’s transported to the Burghölzi in Zurich, where Dr. Carl Jung (Fassbender) is beginning to try out the then-newfangled “talking cure.” Spielrein is a screaming, contorting mess when she arrives, and Jung works closely with her to try to bring her back into reality. Since she wants to go to medical school herself, and since he believes that she will benefit from having some work and responsibility, he asks her to help him with some of his research. He admires the work of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), but wants to try to ground it in more empirical terms, and to try to use it to help people heal themselves rather than simply to tell them exactly why they’re masses of neuroses. He writes to Freud to tell him about his research. He also begins to form a more than professional relationship with Spielrein, despite his reservations about straying from his rich and trusting wife. After a tumultuous few years, during which the Jung-Spielrein affair ends and re-commences and then ends again, and during which the Freud-Jung relationship breaks down completely, everyone goes their separate ways. A helpful series of epigraphs after the film informs us that Freud died of cancer in London in 1939, after having left Vienna due to Nazism; Jung died happily and peacefully in 1961; and Spielrein, after becoming the first female psychologist, specializing in child psychology, moved back to her native Russia where she was killed by Nazis in 1942.
This could have been a fascinating movie. It’s not. Sometimes it’s pretty funny, though I don’t think that’s what David Cronenberg meant to do. Most of the time, it is frustrating. Fassbender joked that he prepared for his role by reading Carl Jung for Dummies, but I wonder if the screenwriter didn’t do the same. There were huge differences between Jung and Freud, and those would have been interesting to explore in depth. Didn’t happen. Spielrein was an incredible person in her own right, and it would have been engrossing to find out more about her. Nope. What we have, instead of a film that tries to understand any of its three leads supposedly so interested in understanding each other and themselves and everyone else, is a trite little soap opera about a triangle among a woman whose madness is cured by finally having sex, and two passive-aggressive note-writers.
And it’s that triangle that is the point of the film – that’s it. Mostly, it’s the side of the triangle connecting point Jung to point Spielrein. Both she and he are interested in Wagner, specifically Siegfried. This means that we get lots of long, slow, moony shots of Fassbender and Knightley with the “Siegfried Idyll” playing: while they lie next to each other in a boat, while he spanks her and she writhes in pleasure/pain, while she rides away for the last time and he looks out at his lake. Isn’t it Romantic.
If everyone were working with a better, more insightful script, perhaps this wouldn’t feel like such a spectacular misfire. I found Knightley’s impersonation of hysteria, well, hysterically funny. Her Russian accent is about as realistic as Natasha Fatale’s. Nevertheless, once Spielrein starts having sex and gets better (don’t even get me started on the bullshit of the premise alone), Knightley fares much better. Fassbender and Mortensen are fine as the two shrinks, though neither has much to do. Fassy gets one scene where he cries. Aragorn of Arathorn gets one where he has a heart attack or something. Too much of their time is spent sitting reading letters that the other had written. It feels like an awfully lazy way out of showing character or plot development. Just because that’s how it happened in real life doesn’t mean that it makes for a good movie.
Apparently, my man Christoph was in talks to play Freud here, and if that had happened, I just might have exploded with frustration at the wasted potential. But I am reminded of something interesting that he said, and I think it’s worth bearing in mind. He said, and I paraphrase, that when he reads a script, he’s looking for what he can bring to life, and how he can do it – that’s why he’s an actor. It is about action. That’s what A Dangerous Method is missing, or at least one thing it’s missing: action. Development. Showing, rather than telling.
And finally, I would like to close with what I found most frustrating. I think Jung is supposed to be the hero here. I think so. It’s hard to tell, really, since everyone is so woefully underdeveloped, but we spend the most time with him. We meet his wife and his growing family, and while we don’t learn much about anyone’s psychoanalytical or analytic psychologic theories, we probably learn the most about his. Yet this film draws a link – tenuous though it may be – between Jung’s affair with Spielrein, and her horrific demise at the hands of the SS in 1942. That’s not just a bad ending to a love affair. That’s a fucking tragedy. If the film didn’t mean to make that connection, it should have been paying closer attention to what it was trying to say. If it did mean to make that connection, it should have given us less of a nice-guy Jung. It should have shown us, at the very least, a man tortured by his conscience – not just a man in a cardigan gazing out at his nice Swiss lake, a man ultimately rewarded with a peaceful death after a long and successful life, while his two former colleagues were hounded and killed by Nazis. But instead, Jung says to Spielrein, “Sometimes you have to do something unforgivable just to be able to go on living.” It’s easy to see it that way, isn’t it, when you don’t actually have to pay for any of the damage you cause. Dr. Spielrein likely saw things rather differently.