Both Sabina's behavior and voice define her as foreign, strange; in his appreciation of the film Glenn Kenny called her the film's "id" in contrast, presumably, to Jung's ambivalent ego and the hyper-rational superego of Dr. Freud (Viggo Mortensen), who forms a kind of psychoanalytic triangle with Jung and Spielrien (Jung's case study of Spielrien brings the two great men together, while the revelation of Jung's affair with Spielrein pulls the two men apart). Spielrien both catalyzes and destabilizes, much like her own theory of sex and death as described in the movie. Her form of subversion, however, is something Cronenberg is eminently comfortable with. Contrast this with Jung, whose mysticism is kept offscreen, suggested in dialogue but never seen. Jung himself would have appreciated the irony; his first breakthroughs as a practitioner came when he made the empathetic leap into the psychotic world of patients, not merely reading outer symptoms but diving into their inner lives. This being the case, Cronenberg's rich yet reticent approach to the material is quite revealing - of himself as much as of Freud or Jung.
Fascinating in this regard is Glenn Kenny's interview with the director, whose execution of the film hewed closely to Christopher Hampton's screenplay (drawing on his own play The Talking Cure, which was based in turn on A Most Dangerous Method, a rigorously researched work of nonfiction by John Kerr). In this Q & A, the director displays an ambivalence bordering on animosity toward Jung. To wit:
"And Jung's whole idea of the collective unconscious is completely a religious, platonic structure. It has no basis in psychology, as far as I'm concerned. I have a friend who says Jung would have been better off talking about the “collective conscious.” It would have made more sense. But in any case, I think that Jung became what he first derided in his youth. His father was a pastor. And he had six uncles who were also pastors. And he derided his father at first for his “weakness.” But I think he eventually became that. He wanted to become a religious leader and lead his flock to spiritual self-realization. And that was exactly what Freud thought he would do."He also discusses Jung's nascent anti-Semitism and alleged pro-Nazism (as I'm just now making extended forays into Jungian theory and biography, aside from his memoirs which have long been among my favorite works of literature, I'm not prepared to defend or confirm Cronenberg's views on that subject). Importantly, Cronenberg ties these in to the religiosity and defensiveness of Jung's ideas, suggesting a kind of general "weakness" in which his rational, scientific side gives way to an obscuring mysticism.
Oddly enough, I didn't get this impression watching the film itself, in which Jung - particularly given Fassbender's thoughtful, sensitive portrayal - came off more sympathetically than Freud, all charismatic authority in Mortensen's hand, but charismatic authority which bluffs and blusters at times. Reading Cronenberg's comments, however, and reflecting back on the movie I can see the traces of his skeptical sensibility in what's onscreen. We're left with the firm impression that Jung's increasingly mystical approach to psychoanalysis is in large part a hypocritical, self-protective defense mechanism borne out of his own bourgeois resistance to polygamy, specifically his inability to reconcile his social duty to his wife with need for a passionate mistress. And so his spirituality is painted as a conservative, even reactionary development (which is much how Freud saw it) rather than a liberating one.
Cronenberg creates this impression not just through suggestive (and occasionally explicit) dialogue but through visual juxtaposition, cutting from Jung's increasingly metaphysical claims to all-too-physical altercations with Spielrein, in which he slaps and spanks her (at her own sadomasochistic request) in front of mirrors. (The cinematography also makes excellent use of what appears to be a split diopter lens, keeping foreground in focus on one side of the screen, background on the other adding an appealingly surreal quality to its tastefully period design). And yet at the same time, despite Cronenberg's rather partisan declarations in the interview, the film is ambivalent about both figures; if Jungian psychology develops out of a desire to "cover up" Jung's own ambivalent sexuality, than many of Freud's theories and actions appear to be rationalizations of his own desire for power and control borne not only out of ethnic insecurity but class differences: exemplified during Freud's 13-hour chat with Jung, his visit to Jung's spacious country estate, and later their separation into steerage and first-class on the voyage to America.
What's more, that very class difference itself has a sexual tinge; it is not Jung who is wealthy but rather Jung's wife. Since it's hinted that Freud doesn't get much action in his marital bed (or elsewhere) we can surmise that Freud is not only jealous of Jung's economic advantage but his sexual advantage as well, with the wife - and later Spielrein (also from a wealthy family) as the fulcrum. The break over Spielrein seems to confirm this. Ultimately if there is a figure who just might represent a way forward Cronenberg can sympathize with, it's Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell), the half-mad sex addict who is both Jung's patient and a brilliant Freudian analyst in his own right. His ethos is simple - "freedom is freedom" - if no less destructive than Freud's or Jung's stubborn sensibilities. Even if Gross' is the least hypocritical path of the three, it's no easier for it; the film doesn't have easy answers. A Dangerous Method is a work of many interlocking layers, as tangled and convoluted (yet following an inner logic) as Spielrein's frantic hands in that first interview - or, indeed, as psychoanalysis itself, that "most dangerous method" of the title.
I read Kerr's book before seeing the movie, which throws the film's thematic and stylistic decisions into sharper relief. The thrust of Kerr's work is less to discredit either Freudian or Jungian theory per se than to show the human terms out of which each arose. The abstract theories may very well - indeed in some cases, certainly did - have their roots in wounded pride and broken hearts. However, Kerr also makes clear that the Freudian and Jungian systems (which he looks upon with some skepticism as being unscientific) are nonetheless not reducible to mere rationalizations for romantic entanglements. The film is less effective on this front - characteristically of its time, Cronenberg's and Hampton's approach seems more interested in personal drama than big ideas. Ultimately then, A Dangerous Method appears a bit dismissive particularly of Jung - the richness of his allegorical universe is never conveyed; the suggestiveness (however unscientific) of his "collective unconsciousness" is dismissed by Cronenberg in that interview and never really suggested onscreen.
And yet it's hard to fault the film for this - part of its fascination is that despite its ambiguity and equanimity, it does have an angle of an attack. What's more, A Dangerous Method is showing these figures near the start of their careers (Jung particularly although even Freud at fifty was just starting to formulate psychoanalysis as a "movement" as well as a field of study). As such, it is just a beginning. We leave off just before World War I, as Jung sits alongside a lake in a contemplative, melancholy mood. His psychic premonitions (already foreshadowed themselves, in a scene in Freud's study) give him a sense of the apocalypse to come, a cataclysm both world-historical (the war) and personal (a years-long nervous breakdown out of which will arise his own distinctly mythological brand of psychoanalysis). Here is the threshhold at which physicality and exteriority must be tossed aside - at which the animus must give way to the anima (a concept inspired by Spielrein herself, as Kerr's book strongly suggests). Naturally, Cronenberg gets off the train here. But the train keeps going, and I'd like to see a film that picks up where this ends, if that's even possible. A film in which those floodwaters rumbling up in the Alps come pouring down, sweeping Jung, the world, and us into the unexplainable albeit perhaps also unrepresentable.