Friday, April 6, 2012

A Dangerous Method puts psychonanalysis on the couch

I can't believe A Dangerous Method exists. This is a (relatively) major film from a revered director starring people everyone has heard of that takes as its subject the history and principles of Freudian psychoanalysis. Please allow me to say: squee.

I guess it's not too much of a surprise that David Cronenberg, whose early stuff (Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly) leaves me a bit cold (and a lot grossed out), but who I've lately been worshipping (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises), made a movie about the relationship between Freud (played by Aragorn, who has become Cronenberg's muse lately) and Carl Jung (Fassbender!). As his later films are all about sex and death, I guess a movie about psychoanalysis was the next logical step.

The movie looks at how and why one particular female hysteric (Keira Knightley, with a spotty Russian accent) caused a rift between two of the most influential minds of the twentieth century. The biopic puts abstract psychoanalytic principles like repression and liberation into practice, and in so doing both confirms and critiques Freud's ideas and Jung's responses. It's been a while since I read the source material, but from what I can tell, it gets the competing theories pretty spot-on. There's also a good bit of wit involving cigars, pipes, and cigarettes being smoked during provocative conversations. Gotta love phallic imagery humor.

A Dangerous Method isn't perfect though--the script jumps around too much and too quickly in time, and it sometimes feels less like a movie and more like a series of scenes in which we are told how the characters feel about each other rather than shown. But what it knocks out of the park is both the limitations and possibilities of psychoanalysis--how it is simultaneously conservatively retrograde and radically progressive, particularly when it comes to women. The female characters are largely instrumentalized and literally and figuratively exposed and penetrated, but the argument is also put forward that intellectually challenging work and self-acceptance and sexual expression are the way that people, particularly women, can heal from and manage the neuroses that inevitably arise from modern life.

The film also illustrates how our bodies and conscious minds express our feelings and memories through abstract images and stories, and that psychoanalysis depends upon sensitive, thorough, and compassionate interpretation of those narratives. What I've always loved about Freud's theories, particularly in terms of literary study, is how much stock they put in precisely that skill: narrative interpretation. According to Freud, stories aren't just entertaining or even important, they're the only way we can access and articulate the deepest truths about ourselves. And even though A Dangerous Method wasn't quite the flawless masterpiece I was hoping for, it takes serious ideas seriously. For that I say, thanks, DC. I hope you don't disappoint me with Cosmopolis.

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