Follow TV Tropes


Film / A Dangerous Method

Go To

I think Freud's obsession with sex probably has a great deal to do with the fact that he never gets any.
Otto Gross

A Dangerous Method is a 2011 period drama directed by David Cronenberg. It concerns the beginning of Carl Jung's (Michael Fassbender) career in psychoanalysis, told through his relationships with a patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), and his mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen).

Jung, an up and coming Swiss doctor, is working at a sanatorium when he begins to treat a certain Sabina Spielrein. Sabina, a Russian Jew, is hysterical, and Jung decides to try the "talking cure" being popularized by Freud in Vienna. The treatment proves successful, and Sabina returns to medical school, staying in contact with Jung. The two develop a romantic relationship in secret from his marriage to a young Swiss heiress. Their affair is intellectual (exploring Jung's fascination with memes and classic archetypes) and sexual (exploring Sabina's masochism in a consensual environment). Eventually, the guilt of his infidelity overwhelms Jung (as well as rumors revealing its existence to the public), and he ends the affair despite Sabina's vehement opposition. Eventually, the two reconcile and re-initiate their affair, but this time, Sabina breaks it off to go work in Vienna with Freud.

Meanwhile, Jung and Freud begin a correspondence. While impressed with Freud, Jung has reservations about his rigidly sexual approach to the human psyche. Freud brands Jung his successor and heir, reinforcing the paternalistic relationship. The two collaborate and even share their studies about Dr. Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), but nonetheless continue to grow apart for a variety of reasons: Jung denies that all psychology is sexual and final, while Freud denounces Jung's interest in non-traditional venues of psychological study, which he calls "mystical nonsense." The two also chafe at their sociopolitical differences; Freud an Austrian Jew with little expendable income, and Jung a wealthy Swiss Protestant. This is all complicated by Jung's affair with Sabina; the young woman turns to Freud after their affair ends, and Jung feels betrayed, convinced she has chosen Freud's interpretation of psychoanalysis over his.

The film ends with Jung approaching a nervous breakdown, cut off by Freud and Sabina.

This film contains examples of:

  • All Psychology Is Freudian: Played straight; even as Jung splits from Freud, his methodology is based in Freud's work.
  • Big Applesauce: Jung and Freud visit America for a psychological conference, and the only shot is of their boat approaching Manhattan.
  • Biopic: A simultaneous one for Jung, Spielrein, and Freud. The film covers 12 years of Jung's life but touches on most of the arcs of his biography, while also dealing with Spielrein's early career as an apprentice and Freud in the middle of his career searching for an apprentice.
  • Break Them by Talking: Gross to Jung.
  • Broken Pedestal: Freud and Jung gradually become one for each other. Jung laments that his master is seeking obedient disciples rather than colleagues, while Freud feels that Jung is Dramatically Missing the Point of psychoanalysis by bringing in mysticism and superstition when he wants it to be a legitimate science. Freud also deplores Jung's treatment of Spielrein and him lying to him about her in letters.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Dr. Otto Gross - a neurotic kleptomaniac who is considered to be one of the best in his field by Freud himself despite his abuse of his position and his patients.
  • Character Development: Jung and Sabina in particular grow to be very complex characters.
  • Cigar Chomper: Freud is quite the cigar aficionado.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Jung claims to have been experiencing bouts of ESP his entire life, and in one scene (set in 1914), describes a dream where Northern Europe is drowned in a tidal wave of blood.
  • The Edwardian Era: Most of the film is set during this period.
  • Eternal Sexual Freedom: All the shrinks are interested in sex and whether it may be able to provide a path to true personal freedom:
    • Otto Gross believes in no repression whatsoever and that all social mores, middle-class values, norms, and professional codes of ethics which forbid such relations are there to be broken.
    • Sabina Spielrein later summarizes the contents of her famous paper (renowned for introducing the concept of the "death drive") where she notes that since sexuality depends so much on contact with other people, it can harm the ego and that an activity so pleasurable can at the same time provoke resistance and aversion and render it, more or less, not happening.
  • Figure It Out Yourself: This is what psychoanalysis should ideally be concerned with as far as Freud is concerned, helping people understand themselves and giving them space to help them find themselves. Freud disagrees with Jung, who wants to help people by telling them what they can do and encouraging their goals, which Freud sees as "playing God" and replacing one delusion with another.
  • Florence Nightingale Effect: The mental health variety with Jung and Sabina.
  • Freudian Couch: Averted by strangely never making an appearance. Everyone conducts their therapy while seated upright. We actually do get a glimpse of Freud's famous couch when Jung comes into his office, but he doesn't sit on it.
  • Freudian Excuse: Played straight. Sabina reveals, during therapy, that her masochism stems from the violent punishments she received as a child from her father.
  • Freud Was Right: Part of the crux is the in-universe dispute whether he is or not. At least he was right in Sabina's case, concerning the sexual roots of her hysteria. David Cronenberg and Mortensen have stated that they are totally pro-Freud and believe that he was in the right. Sabina Spielrein agrees with Freud more than Jung but she wishes there was a way to reconcile them both. Alas, too much pride...
  • The Hedonist: Otto Gross, who never represses any urge and advocates for the opposite, serving as The Corrupter for Jung.
  • Id, Superego, & Ego: an interesting case - the simplest interpretation is to identify Jung with Ego, Emma with Superego, and Sabina with Id, but Freud also has a traces of Superego (in reference to Jung's Ego) in him.
  • I Am a Monster: Early in the film, Sabina is disgusted with herself regarding the sexual nature of her hysteria.
    Sabina: There's...there's no hope for me. I'm vile...and...filthy, and...corrupt. I must...I must never be let out of here.
  • Jews Love to Argue: Freud and Sabina are both conscious of their Jewish-ness and how it affects their interactions with Jung.
    Sigmund Freud: I have simply opened a door. It's for the young men like yourself to walk through it. I'm sure you have many more doors to open for us. Of course, there's the added difficulty, more ammunition for our enemies, that all of us here in Vienna, in our psychoanalytical circle, are Jews.
    Carl Jung: I don't see what difference that makes.
    Sigmund Freud: That, if I may say so, is an exquisitely Protestant remark.
    • Freud returns to this theme and adds a layer of racism to it later on when he and Sabina interact and discuss her past with Jung:
    Sigmund Freud: Don't put any trust in the Aryans. We are Jews, Miss Spielrein, and Jews we shall always remain."
  • Laughing Mad: Sabina, during the onset of hysteria.
  • Lighter and Softer: One of David Cronenberg's most mainstream films, notably lacking the Body Horror and extreme violence of most of his other movies.
  • Mad Love: Played with. Arguably, Sabina goes from hysterical to reasonably sane, while Jung feels his mind coming apart over the course of the film. Their affair falls at a point where the two are equally "crazy."
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Jung proposes to explore what can now be called supernatural, parapsychological elements, but Freud rebukes him.
  • The Mistress: Sabina and later Toni Wolff, a Replacement Goldfish for Jung.
  • The One That Got Away: Sabina and Jung, for each other.
  • Passing the Torch: Freud is looking for an intellectual son, but both Gross and Jung disappoint him.
  • Pervert Dad: Sabina's father had her strip naked for her spankings.
  • Psycho Ex-Girlfriend: Sabina towards Jung, for some time.
  • Psycho Psychologist: Subverted with Sabina, played straight with Otto. When Sabina mentions her ambition to be a therapist, Jung approves, saying "We need insane doctors. Sane ones are so limited." Otto, on the other hand, manipulates his patients into sleeping with him and encourages suicide for the suicidal if he deems them incapable of cure.
  • Sex as Rite-of-Passage: Sabina.
  • Single-Issue Psychology: Lampshaded. While Sabina's therapy reveals a sexual trauma as the root of her masochism, Jung criticizes Freud for being so obsessed with sex as the root of all human psychology.
  • Slave to PR: Freud is wary of Jung's parapsychological approach before any preliminary evaluation is done because it will be used as a weapon by their detractors, who are eager to discredit Freud as a wacko. In his interactions with Sabina however, he confirms that his real reasons were that he really did disagree with Jung's mystical turn because it offended his atheistic, secular approach, and moreover he felt was reinforcing the problem rather than fixing it.
  • Stepford Smiler: Emma Jung.
  • Student–Master Team: Freud-Jung-Sabina.
  • Talkative Loon: Sabina, at the beginning of the film.
  • There Are No Coincidences: Jung is a firm believer in this, drawing on personal experience.
  • Trickster Mentor: Otto Gross. While nominally he is Jung's patient, Otto's conversations with the doctor help shape Jung's attitude and philosophy.
  • The Unfettered: Otto Gross. A classic case, as he ignores social mores as he pursues a singular goal of pleasure before death. It also helps that he runs in affluent circles, so he doesn't have to pay for much.
  • Virgin Tension: With Sabina.
  • We Used to Be Friends: First there's the breakdown in the friendship between Freud and Jung. When they first meet, the two of them spend 13 hours talking non-stop, and travel on boats together for leisure activity. By the end, they are no longer on speaking terms and exchange vitriolic Strongly Worded Letter about how much either one of them is a Broken Pedestal for the other. Then there's the breakdown in the friendship between Jung and Spielrein, which starts off with them enjoying each other's company so much that they have a sexual relationship, and by the end they're barely on speaking terms despite missing each other sorely.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The ending explains the characters' ultimate fates. Otto died of starvation in Berlin in 1920; Freud was driven out of Austria by the Nazis and later died in 1939 of cancer during exile in London; Sabina was executed by Nazis during the invasion on Rostov-on-Don; and Jung ultimately came out of his experiences changed for the better, becoming one of the most respected psychologists of his time, eventually dying peacefully in 1961.
  • Word Association Test: Performed by Jung with Emma as a subject and Sabina as an assistant and interpreter.
  • Yandere: Averted. While Sabina's reaction to the end of the affair is emotional, she refuses to explicitly blackmail Jung, mostly emotionally wounding him by demanding a referral to Freud.
  • You Need to Get Laid:
    Otto Gross: I think Freud's obsession with sex probably has a great deal to do with the fact that he never gets any.