Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dangerous: The Method or the Men?

BMFI guest blogger Diane Mina Weltman attended a screening of A Dangerous Method and BMFI's "Inside the Characters" monthly discussion group, hosted by the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia, this past Sunday. Read her thoughts about the film's portrayal of Jung, the post-movie chat, and more below.  

Dangerous: The Method or the Men?
By Diane Mina Weltman, BMFI Member and Guest Blogger

Overstepping the slender line that separates the doctor/patient relationship is one of the most dangerous decisions a health professional can make—at least that was the consensus reached by moviegoers discussing the film A Dangerous Method following a Sunday afternoon screening during its recent opening weekend at Bryn Mawr Film Institute.

An alternative event to the Super Bowl, some 20 or so filmgoers joined Dr. John Frank of the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia to talk about their impressions regarding the film's characters as part of BMFI’s "Inside the Characters" forum. The guided discussion, offered monthly at BMFI, opens an opportunity to answer the timely post-movie question, "What did you think?" or, more specifically, "What did you think of the characters?"

Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen play Carl Jung
and Sigmund Freud in David Cronenberg's new drama,

The discussion initially focused on the expanded view of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung as two of the film's trio of main characters during a period where they collided on their professional journeys. The film looks at how these forces of psychoanalysis navigated their work and relationship with each other, as well as how they formulated and employed the 'talking method' of treatment. The discussion was equally rich and uncomfortable as moviegoers wrestled with the way these men’s personalities and practices collide in their search to understand the human psyche.

Today, using talking as a way of emotionally healing is the predominant path taken in psychoanalysis. At the turn of the 20th century, this method was in its infancy. Its use (and abuse) provided the basis of one of the film's troubling themes.

Jung (Michael Fassbender) successfully treats a young female patient whose consuming hysteria blasts the movie's first scene wide open. The patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly) responds exceedingly well to the talking method of treatment. It not only reduces both her uncontrolled bouts of fear and the sexual arousal they ignite, but opens the door for her intuitive intelligence to emerge.

Keira Knightly plays Jung's patient, Sabina Spielrein.

Audience members seemed to appreciate the defined success of the married Jung's care for his patient until his suppressed sexual needs supersede Spielrein's treatment. Spielrein's portrayal as the one who initiates the physical relationship with Jung did not sway the discussion participants from the overriding concern about the damage done when a patient/doctor relationship breaks the bond of appropriateness. Said one participant, "This goes to the basis of aberrant behavior and abuses any trust between the two." The group seemed unanimous in demanding that, as the professional, the doctor’s role in protecting that trust was paramount.

In the post-movie chat, other participants whose professional life is/was in social work or mental health also took pointed exception to Jung's breach of conduct. One woman explained, "We'd be in a terrible state if everyone did whatever they wanted." Added another, "Jung goes directly against keeping the necessary boundaries of the doctor/patient relationship." The film's presentation of this taboo behavior tainted Jung's professional achievements for many in the discussion.

In the film, psychologist Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) represents uninhibited expression and freedom to the extreme. Gross described a patient's desire for the same freedom to both have an affair with her doctor and to commit suicide as a consistent expression that should not be "cured." "Freedom is freedom," he quips much to the audience and Jung's disdain. The audience was as critical of his character as they were of Jung’s malfeasance. One participant noted, "He was a horror."

[Spoiler alert] The character of Sabina Spielrein was interesting because of how she seeks answers while remaining acutely aware of her scarred past. "I give Sabina credit," one male participant stated, noting that she benefits from Jung's initial treatment and unhappily moves beyond their sexual relationship to "ultimately succeed in getting better and living a very productive life." The contrast from this woman's uncontrollable breakdown at the outset to her resounding intellectual achievements received appreciation from some—but not all—in the group.

Another woman noted, "Sabina was never really cured, even though she achieved a great deal in her field." This led to a discussion regarding how much does one need to be healed to live a productive life. As discussion leader, Dr. Frank added, "Sabina was seen as someone history cast aside early on, but her work in the new area of child psychology was eventually recognized as groundbreaking."

Viggo Mortensen's Freud fills the
role of a substitute father for the conflicted Jung.

Freud's (Viggo Mortensen) influence as father figure to Jung and to the psychoanalytic movement in Europe received notable emphasis in the film and also with the discussion participants. Said one woman, "The film supported the view that Freud and Jung were smart men but when it came to their personal relationship, Jung struggled with having Freud as a substitute father."

Spielrein's deeply rooted humiliation at the hands of her biological father also influenced how she saw both Jung and Freud. "Each character was traumatized in some way by the other," added one gentleman. "The father-figure role impacted all their lives."

Delving inside the film's characters with other moviegoers added a dimension to the movie experience that mirrored its intent—by talking through our impressions of the film's players, we not only had our say but had to consider how others saw them. The power of talk, whether as a psychoanalytic tool or vehicle for discussion, gives us all a chance to be heard.

Upon exiting A Dangerous Method, I reflected that the film’s title was somewhat misleading since 'the method' was not necessarily dangerous. The danger lay with how Jung, Freud, and Gross chose to use it, reminding me that sometimes the disease seeps into the cure.

Diane Mina Weltman is a BMFI member who enjoys attending performing and visual arts events and writing about them. Check out her blog, A Subject for Consideration.

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