Monday, January 30, 2012

A Dangerous Time

Back during the TBM era (that is, Time Between Marriages) I had a date or two with a woman who was a fan of Carl Jung, specifically his thoughts concerning dreams. She dutifully kept a diary at her bedside and wrote long, detailed descriptions of every dream. What she did with these I never learned. Myself, I almost never remember my dreams; this is a faculty which can be developed with exercise, she said. I could just never muster any enthusiasm for acquiring the skill. To what end would I want to learn the "inner meanings" of my dreams? Is there any reason to believe dreams have meaning? I guess I'm just a hopeless literalist.

My familiarity with Sigmund Freud is even more scant (if that's possible). As a freshman in college I made an appointment at the University of Minnesota's Eating Disorders Clinic to discuss why I was fat and whether I was destined to remain so. (FWIW, I was told that I did not have an eating disorder per se, and that what was needed was obesity counseling which, frankly, was unlikely to work. Thanks, dude.) At the end of my brief meeting with the psychiatrist I asked a rather non-sequitur question about the current regard for Freud among mental health professionals (I must have been reading something related at the time). He said that Freud was revered as an outside-the-box thinker, but his methodology was not considered relevant nowadays.

I've had occasion to chew this cud over the years when thinking about the interface between science and medicine. For many in the general public, medicine IS science since this is one of the chief ways they interact tangibly with the products of science. But I'm often reminded that doctors are not scientists, even if the fields overlap somewhat. Most doctors are in the business of applying the fruits of science to sick people in an attempt to ward off existing sickness or disease or injury. Clinical trials of drugs or therapies are a kind of scientific research, but it's muddied up with a lot of stuff that pollutes pure science. (Our man Jeffy would have plenty to say about all this, both as a science-minded person and the husband of a doctor of public health.)

These questions of science and medicine arise inevitably from David Cronenberg's new film A Dangerous Method. Set in the early 1910s, the film purports to tell the true story of Carl Jung (played by the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender) and one of his patients, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). Spielrein comes to Jung in a highly-disturbed state and Jung applies Freud's psychoanalytical method to help bring her back to health. Spielrein goes on to earn her medical degree and become a proponent of psychoanalysis back in her native Russia. In the course of her treatment by Dr. Jung, the two begin an affair which is to torment them for the rest of their lives. And prominently interwoven with this storyline is the growing strain and eventual break between Jung and Freud, complicated by Spielrein's devotion to Jung the man and to Freud the medical theorist and practitioner.

It's actually a lovely and nicely self-contained story. The screenplay is by Academy Award-winner Christopher Hampton (Atonement, The Quiet American, Dangerous Liaisons) and is based on his 2002 stage play The Talking Cure, which in turn is based on a 1993 novel by John Kerr, A Most Dangerous Method: the story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein. This chain of origin does not of course guarantee a good film, but a successful book and play would seem to foretell good source material.

And I found it quite gripping indeed. It's a mostly quiet, talky story, but we identify with the protagonists: Sabina Spielrein is a damaged but highly intelligent and eminently redeemable person; and Jung is a talented and scrupulous, if fallible, physician. Viggo Mortensen plays Sigmund Freud, who is kind of the father figure of the story, but also one protective of his ideas and eager to manage the development of the theories he originated. Jung felt that Freud's thinking was a great starting point but that one had to branch out; Freud felt they were already a long way from public acceptance, and moving from a sexual basis for most psychosis to the possibility of supernatural or extrasensory explanations was sure to be the movement's death knell.

Again, it feels like there's a kind of fumbling proto-science going on here, with both men seeming (to me) to be trying to move their field forward by way of some wild-ass guesswork. And yet at its essence science is about observing reality against a theoretical backdrop to see what fits and what doesn't, and altering the theoretical backdrop accordingly. This is where knowledge comes from. Mostly, this is all the framework for telling a slightly unconventional love story, and I thought it all worked fabulously. Mortensen and Fassbender give quiet, subtle performances, and if Knightley has a less subtle role to play, she must also cover a much broader range. She's wonderful. (I must give credit to the beautiful woman who is secure enough to be so... ugly--at times, anyway.) The previews tend to hint of a highly sexualized story, and there is a frank discussion of the masochism that lies at the root of Spielrein's problems. But it's tamer than I expected; it earns its R rating, but no more than that.

It appears David Cronenberg has generally played in more turbulent waters than these. I haven't seen much of his, though I liked Eastern Promises (and was about to rewatch, now that I think of it).

But this one is an excellent film. Grade: A-


dbackdad said...

Ugh. This is why we couldn't do a movie blog together -- you are much too prolific! I would shame us with my paltry output.

I'm glad you liked this film as I had pretty much decided on not seeing it because of a few negative reviews I had read. I like Cronenberg, Fassbender and Mortenson and was optimistic before reading those reviews.

wunelle said...

It's one of the lovely fringe benefits of my job that I have time to see movies. I'm sitting reserve in Louisville this whole week, and if they don't call me to fly then I'm free all day. So films are just gonna happen in that case. (Tomorrow, if I don't fly, will be Shame, or a repeat of Tinker, Tailor.) You'll have noticed that without movies I write about 0.635 posts per month!

I didn't read any reviews of A Dangerous Method before seeing it, so I'm curious if I'd agree with the negative ones after seeing it.

I'm watching Eastern Promises (again) as I sit in my apartment. It's better than I remember. And the same crew, of course, minus Fassbender but plus Vincent Cassel (who was also in Dangerous Method) and plus the fantastic Armin Mueller-Stahl. And I love Naomi Watts. She's on my List.

dbackdad said...

I'm a big fan of all of the Cronenberg/Mortenson collaborations including Eastern Promises.

And, yes, Naomi Watts is on my list as well. What list ... you may ask? Any and all lists, I say. Hubba, hubba.

wunelle said...

Ha! Agreed.

To paraphrase Groucho Marx (or was it W. C. Fields?): I wouldn't want to be on any list people like me might get put on!