A Disappointing Method: Cronenberg’s psychoanalysis film is a missed opportunity

David Cronenberg's latest film, A Dangerous Method, is a huge missed opportunity. He's probably the ideal director to make a film about the relationship between Sigmund Freud and C.G. Jung, and the crisis in the early psychoanalytic movement caused by their split. In such a movie, enormously important and widely misunderstood concepts should have found a perfect vehicle to be dramatized and interrogated. Unfortunately A Dangerous Method fails to deliver on most fronts. But, what might have been…

Situating "Method" in Cronenberg's evolution

A Dangerous Method is a return to more familiar themes in Cronenberg's work than his most recent two previous films, the crime dramas A History of Violence (2005) and the brilliant Eastern Promises (2007). Beginning with his 1970 silent short, Crimes of the Future, which introduced most of the themes of the rest of his career, Cronenberg has focused on the horror and dangers of transformation and change brought about by illness and often even worse treatments and technologies. His earlier, lower budget films tended to focus on physical illnesses and transformations, and what has been called “body horror,” of which he is certainly the most important investigator. Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), The Dead Zone (1983), and his remake of The Fly (1986) are all visceral and corporeal, as well as profoundly sexual, in their content and concerns. Together they make up a distinctive and unique genre almost entirely developed by Cronenberg.

In 1988, however, Cronenberg made an enormous creative, qualitative and imaginative leap forward with Dead Ringers, which is almost certainly his masterpiece to date and which established him as one of the most important contemporary filmmakers. The “body horror” in Dead Ringers is, if anything, more disturbing and visceral than his more corporeally graphic earlier films, although it is almost entirely implicit and potential rather than actuated or depicted within the narrative. That said, once having seen them, no one can forget his "Gynecological Instruments for Working on Mutant Women." But the real disease in Dead Ringers is drug addiction, combined with some odd forms of mental illness, shared between the disturbed twin gynecologists (magnificently played by Jeremy Irons ) — not, as in his earlier works, imaginary venereal diseases (Shivers and Rabid), physical manifestations of psychological illnesses (The Brood), physical and psychological transformations brought about by technology (Videodrome and The Fly), or fanciful mutations (Scanners and The Dead Zone). Dead Ringers is hardly "realistic," but the mental illness and drug addiction that destroy the Mantle twins are firmly rooted in very real human experiences and not wild flights of fancy.

Dead Ringers not only marked a qualitative turning point in Cronenberg's career and a shift towards psychological rather than corporeal horror, it also initiated a cycle of three additional films that has surely established him as among the most accomplished and important of all directors, globally and historically. His brilliant adaptation of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1991) recognized that what is probably the founding novel of full-blown postmodernity was (as had often been noted) “unfilmable,” with its fractured vignettes, routines and symphonic rhetorical ravings. Instead, Cronenberg decided to make a film about what it must have felt like to write Naked Lunch, building on the theme of addiction (Burroughs' work generally is about trying to find escapes from control and his own heroin addiction was surely the most insidious and effective controlling influence possible).

Cronenberg's adaptation of David Henry Hwang's play M. Butterfly (1993) is another deep dive into warped psychology, in this case that of a French diplomat and the dangerous nexus between orientalism, colonialism, sexuality, theater and espionage. The cycle culminated in the extraordinary and profoundly underrated masterpiece Crash (1996) — not to be confused with the insultingly stupid Oscar-winning movie about racism with the same name from 2004 — which dramatizes an unknown but entirely plausible social-sexual fetish regarding car crashes. Each of these four masterpieces requires careful consideration on their own terms, something I might come back to in future Ibishblog postings.

However, after Crash, Cronenberg seems to have very seriously lost his way. eXistenZ (1999) was essentially a bigger-budget but less interesting remake of Videodrome, and Spider (2002) was a boring, predictable and lackluster depiction of the delusions of a psychopath. With his improved more recent films A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, Cronenberg seemed to be abandoning his traditional obsessions for what amounted to forays into the gangster-film genre. Of course, “body horror” can never be too far away whenever he is at work as anyone who has seen the breathtakingly brilliant knife-fight in the steam bath using linoleum knives in Eastern Promises can certainly attest. Indeed, it's one of the most originally composed and creatively filmed fight scenes in several decades.

Given that History amounted to little more than a good start, but Promises seemed to indicate the beginning of a real mastery of a new version of a very well-established genre, one certainly expected the next Cronenberg film to be in some way or another related to criminals or gangsters. I don't think anyone, no matter how much they may detest Freud and/or Jung, would describe the early psychoanalytic movement in these terms. With Method, Cronenberg is returning to the themes first laid out in Crimes of the Future: illness, controversial and dangerous new therapeutic techniques and technologies, the uncontrolled power of physicians and scientists, the potential for research institutes becoming socially and personally threatening and dangerous places, and the problematics of personal transformation.

Why "Method" is a disappointing missed opportunity

The early days of psychoanalysis seem a perfect subject for the mature work of an artist with Cronenberg's established subjects of inquiry. It's probably most closely related to The Brood, in which a misguided psychiatrist creates a dangerous new therapy he calls "psychoplasmics," through which emotional disturbances are supposed to be cured by exacerbating them until they manifest themselves in grotesque physical mutations. All we ever learn about his book laying out his controversial techniques is its title, The Shape of Rage, which would probably make a very good title for a comprehensive book-length analysis of Cronenberg's own body of work. In a sense, Method is a much more mature return to these concerns: mental and emotional disturbance, radical and potentially dangerous new forms of therapy, the interplay of the psyche and the soma, and the self-destructive potential of distorted, unrealized or repressed sexuality and sexual anxiety. It also clearly builds on foundations established by Naked Lunch and M. Butterfly. Unfortunately, Method fails to deliver on the same kind of potential that the meeting between Cronenberg's style and techniques with material derived from Burroughs and Hwang also provided. It's a terrible missed opportunity.

The biggest problem is that Method does not focus on the relationship between Freud and Jung at all, but mainly on that between Jung and Sabina Spielrein. Spielrein is, indeed, an interesting figure having been Jung's patient and probably lover, and also, later, a student and colleague of Freud. In Freud and Oedipus (Columbia University Press, 1992), Peter Rudnytsky posits very convincingly that Freud had a pattern throughout his life of establishing close relationships with male confidants that were then disrupted by competition (not necessarily sexual) over a disruptive female. In this regard, Spielrein does in fact play a significant role in the crisis in relations between Freud and Jung, serving as the hypotenuse, so to speak, in a Freudian eternal triangle. But the two men did not split largely over Spielrein, who certainly never had an affair with Freud even if she probably did have one with Jung.

The break was very complex and, in Freud's view at least, utterly primal and Oedipal. Intellectually it was rooted in Jung's skepticism (which he had from the beginning) about Freud's emphasis on childhood sexuality and sexual repression, his feeling that Freud's worldview was narrow, rigid and overly negative, and his interest in mysticism, spirituality and the occult. Freud was not only offended by Jung's increasing rejection of, or at least independence from, his psycho-sexual model of individual and cultural development, he strongly felt that the fragile and possibly even besieged psychoanalytic movement would be deeply threatened by what seemed to him to be Jung's pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo and mystical quackery. One of Freud's famous fainting spells is depicted in the film, but isn't contextualized, as it has been by a great many scholars, in his reaction to challenges by younger rivals like Jung that appear to have triggered recurrences of guilt and shame attached to the sudden infant death of his younger brother Julius.

The film does contains some dialogue referring to some of the real arguments dividing the men, although in very crude terms, but it does not ground the break in the important concepts that underscored Freud's redoubled commitment to his orthodox Oedipal theory and Jung's development of his own very different model and notions of a “collective unconscious.” The triangle involving Spielrein is ultimately a lot less important intellectually and historically to the trajectory of the psychoanalytic movement and the break between Freud and Jung than their quarrel over childhood sexuality and aggressivity, and the importance and nature of the libido. The real ideas at stake are glossed over in Method, but they didn't have to be. Instead of an account of the greatest crisis in the history of the psychoanalytic movement — the decisive break between Freud and Jung — most of the film dwells on an almost entirely speculative and not particularly interesting account of Jung's probable affair with Spielrein.

Cronenberg's fantasy about the Jung-Spielrein affair

The evidence that there was an affair is pretty strong, based on many different sources including both of the principles. But no details about it are known, and indeed it may never have been fully realized. The film, however, delves into great detail about not only its trajectory but also its sexual nature. It's well documented that Spielrein told Jung that, as a young child, she was frequently beaten by her father on the bare buttocks and that this sexually excited her. From this tidbit, a detailed relationship between the two based on dominance and submission, and especially spanking, is extrapolated. It's entirely fictional, speculative at best and improbable at worst. In fact, your guess is as good as anybody else's. I literally burst out laughing when, towards the end of the credits (with almost everyone else in the cinema already gone) a small disclaimer was screened reading: “This film is based on true events, but certain scenes, especially those in the private sphere, are of a speculative nature.” No kidding! By “certain scenes” I think we can read at least half of the film, and virtually everything involving the probable but not definitely confirmed sexual relationship between Spielrein and Jung.

The spanking scenes in Method probably tell us more about Cronenberg than about Spielrein or Jung, and it's hardly the first reference to it in his work. In Dead Ringers, another masochistic patient, Claire Niveau, asks the twin gynecologists who are both treating and sleeping with her (she has not yet realized they are more than one person) for a spanking. Neither doctor apparently obliges her. But as far as paraphilia in Cronenberg's films go, this is fairly tame. The utterly invented car-crash fetish in Crash is infinitely more “out there.” What's really crucial and important about these scenes — and the only other "sex scene" involving Spielrein and Jung in which he deflowers her — is how clinical and non-erotic they are.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Cronenberg's style is his hyper-clinical approach to everything human and corporeal, particularly sex (both conventional and more adventurous). Indeed, the large majority of scenes in Crash are sex scenes of one form or another, but none of them are erotic or prurient in any way whatsoever. I defy anyone to claim to have been sexually excited by watching Crash, even though I can't think of any other non-pornographic film that depicts more sexual activity. And that's also true of the spanking scenes in Method: they are clinical, sterile and de-eroticized (for those who might respond to that kind of thing) in the typical Cronenberg fashion. He tends to film all forms of human sexuality like a scientist looking at amoebae through a microscope, with the same level of passion and engagement. This is both a great strength and a terrible weakness, depending on how it works in each film. Here, it does more harm than good.

More importantly, these scenes are entirely made up, based on no evidence whatsoever and have absolutely nothing to tell us about psychoanalytic ideas, the history of the psychoanalytic movement, the break between Freud and Jung, or even the Freud-Jung-Spielrein triangle (assuming we accept that this is what it constituted). They are emblematic of the extent to which Cronenberg and his colleagues in this film decided to make a speculative movie about an illicit, improper and, in their depiction, fairly kinky affair between a major psychoanalyst and an important patient who also became a significant psychoanalyst in her own right. It's not just a matter of dumbing-down the nature and history of extremely important ideas, it's changing the subject from those ideas to interpersonal relations that are, in the final analysis (pun intended), at best tertiary if not actually tangential to what was really important about these events.

Transference and countertransference shortchanged

The audience is therefore shortchanged on the theory and history of psychoanalysis in favor of a highly fictionalized account of Jung's life and his probable affair with Spielrein. The biggest weakness is that the film mentions but does not explain, or even effectively dramatize, the dynamics of transference and countertransference that would have been the basis of such an affair between any analyst and his or her patient. Transference essentially refers to the development of intense emotional feelings towards the analyst who assumes the role of the authority who is “deemed to know,” an idealized savior-figure. The patient then projects emotions, wishes and fantasies — in other words symptoms (in psychoanalytic terms, of course originating in libidinal and aggressive childhood experiences) — onto the analyst and their relationship, typically in an erotic manner whether overt or sublimated.

In effect, a new set of neurotic symptoms are created in the analytic process within the dynamics of transference that, theoretically, can then be more easily analyzed, managed and understood, if not “cured.” Countertransference basically boils down to the emotionally-charged and also typically erotic response by the analyst to the idealized position he or she now holds in the psyche of the analysand. Simply put, it's a huge turn-on, or at least ego-boost, to be seen as the guru, savior, and possessor of esoteric knowledge and insight.

Transference and countertransference should be instantly familiar to anyone familiar with hierarchical interpersonal dynamics, as the process is extremely common in many circumstances. For precisely this reason, it is unethical for romantic involvement to emerge between professors and their own students, doctors and patients, attorneys and clients, and many other professionals and those they serve. But in the psychoanalytic and psychiatric context, this is particularly fraught because psychoanalysis recognizes that transference and idealization, even if it does not take a romantic form, is a virtually inevitable part of the process and that it will essentially entail the production of new neurotic symptoms.

Freud initially regarded transference as a major impediment to successful therapy, but came to see it as an inevitable, manageable and, indeed, necessary part of the process. Of course, giving in to countertransference and, worse still, acting on it as the film (plausibly) posits Jung did, utterly betrays the psychoanalytic method by failing to analyze the dynamic and instead allowing it to dictate improper actions. This precisely is the most significant, although of course not the only, “danger” alluded to in the title of Method. But what's so dangerous about it isn't properly explained to the audience, and what we are left with is a somewhat tiresome saga of an obviously misguided and in every possible sense problematic relationship, and a portrait of a flawed but brilliant psychiatrist. It's almost at the level of “geniuses behaving badly.”

“Method” as an allegory about anti-Semitism

In his more recent work, Cronenberg, who is a Canadian atheist of Jewish origin, has been paying more attention to the question of anti-Semitism, a subject he ignored or avoided for most of his career and that didn't necessarily have any relationship to most of his earlier work. But the psychoanalytic movement was developed at the height of European anti-Semitism and was heavily attacked as a Jewish conspiracy. There is no doubt that part of Jung's appeal to Freud as an heir apparent was not only that he was considerably more intelligent than any of his other followers and less obsequious (although his intellectual challenges eventually became intolerable rather than stimulating), but also that he was an “Aryan” and not a Jew.

One of the more successful aspects of Method is that it pays close attention to this dynamic, not only between Freud and Jung but also between both of them and Spielrein, who was also Jewish. Spielrein wrote in her diary that she fantasized about having a child with Jung whom she wanted to name “Siegfried,” a complex and long-running fantasy that reflected both of their tendencies towards mysticism, but also has been taken by many to indicate a racially-inflected set of anxieties as well. Freud certainly was increasingly concerned with anti-Semitism as a cultural phenomenon and a threat to psychoanalysis, and the difficult relations between European Jews and Christians, towards the end of his career.

This is clearly a central theme of the film for Cronenberg, who is quoted as saying, “The character of Sabina is submissive in some ways, but she is also in control in many ways. That is the nature of the sadomasochistic relationship, and it maps well onto the relationship between Jews and Aryans in that particular time.” So Cronenberg sees in the Jung-Spielrein relationship, which let us recall is speculative at best and fictional at worst, a kind of allegory for Jewish-Christian relations in Europe between the wars. According to the director, “Sabina had Siegfried fantasies revolving around Jung — the idea that their secret, sinful relationship would yield this Germanic progeny, and Freud, in our movie, nails her on that — tells her that her fantasy of mating with a blond Aryan and producing a Siegfried are delusional.”

In the script, indeed he does. But I'm not aware of any evidence that Freud ever told Spielrein anything of the kind, directly or indirectly. I'm open to correction, but as far as I know this is also entirely fictional. Worse still, Cronenberg has Freud telling her, “Put your trust not in Aryans. We’re Jews, my dear Miss Spielrein, and Jews we will always be.” This is a most un-Freudian sentiment, to say the least. In 1921, Freud attributed European Christian anti-Semitism to "the narcissism of minor differences." He located the genesis of this hatred in a form of displacement, the product of childhood anxieties and family dynamics, and resentment against a people who saw themselves, and were also seen by Christians, as the "first born" of the monotheists. He also typically referred to Jews as "they" rather than "we." Most Freud scholars view his relationship with his Jewish identity as ambivalent, a mixture of pride in his heritage and ethnic-self-awareness combined with intellectually and psychoanalytically-driven skepticism about the validity of such sentiments given his atheist and universalist perspectives. Any such remarks would be at huge variance with the vast majority of what Freud is known to have written and said about anti-Semitism and Jewish-Christian relations, and the implications of his work that would seem to completely invalidate and even pathologize a consciousness that fetishizes or privileges ethnic or religious identity.

But of course it's highly significant that Freud was driven out of Vienna by the Nazis and died in London shortly thereafter, and Spielrein was murdered by invading German forces after moving back to Russia, while Jung peacefully sat out the war in neutral Switzerland. Jung has sometimes been accused of having had pro-Nazi sympathies or at least neutrality, but in fact his hostility to such politics was quite clear. Nonetheless, while Cronenberg has created a fantasy about the Jung-Spielrein relationship that is supposed to serve as an allegory for Jewish-Christian relations during a period of intense anti-Semitism, and has attributed to Freud very un-Freudian statements to back this up, their respective fates cannot be disregarded.

Again, this tells us much more about Cronenberg and where his work is heading in the later stages of his extraordinary career than it does about Jung, Spielrein, Freud or psychoanalysis. Method is in many ways profoundly disappointing, but it is nonetheless a significant film by a major director and deserves serious consideration, particularly by those who are interested in how Cronenberg's career has progressed and where it seems to be going.