Dir. David Cronenberg, UK/Germany/Canada/Switzerland, 2011, 99 min
Review by Carol Allen
Based on Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure, this lushly beautiful but somewhat wordy film, set in the early days of the twentieth century, tells the story of the initially collaborative and then adversarial relationship between the joint fathers of psychoanalysis, Carl Jung (Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Mortensen), and of Jung’s love affair with Sabina Spielrein (Knightley), one of his patients, who later became a renowned psychoanalyst in her own right.
The startling opening scenes, in which a hysterical Sabina is forcibly dragged into Jung’s clinic, are powerfully dramatic, with Knightly, taut as a wire, forcing her words out through her jutting jaw, as she is subject to the new “talking cure” method, telling Jung the story of her abusive childhood. It is this childhood which has created her particular “pain is pleasure” psychosis and the reason for the now widely reported “spanking scenes”, which are actually as unpornographic in context as the sex scenes Fassbender also has to play in Shame. He plays Jung as a bespectacled, scholarly figure, a seeker after truth, conflicted by his passion for Sabina and his loyalty to his apparently ever pregnant and quietly perceptive wife (Sarah Gadon), while Mortensen gives Freud an impressive gravitas appropriately seasoned by the man’s egotism and vanity.
The initial relationship between the two men is that of acolyte and mentor – Freud sees the much younger Jung as a surrogate son, who will take his work on into the future – but their conflict arises over Freud’s reservations and indeed contempt for Jung’s wider, spiritual curiosity about the nature of the human psyche. Freud views psychoanalysis (not “psych analysis”, he gravely corrects Jung) as a purely scientific enterprise, whereas Jung, despite his relationship with Sabina, is not convinced that everything is rooted in the sexual impulse. Unlike another of his patients, Otto Goss (Vincent Cassel), who believes that all his sexual impulses must be indulged to the hilt in order to achieve true freedom. Otto is not only a patient but also a professor of the new science, bearing out the idea that all psychiatrists are as disturbed as their patients.
The film is an interesting mixture of personal passion and cerebral argument and well played by its three principal actors, although the characters do occasionally come across as slightly ludicrous in their self obsession and self analysis – the forerunners of the neurotic egotists on the couch in so many Woody Allen movies. The ideas are however really interesting and may well lead you to investigate further Jung’s observation, based on his own flashes of prophecy – there’s a chilling one right at the end of the film which foretells World War I – that there are no coincidences. Check out the concepts of “archetype”, “the collective unconscious” and “synchronicity”.