Birth of Psychoanalysis in A Dangerous Method; Last Days of the Brothel in House of Pleasures


A Dangerous Method, the title of David Cronenberg’s viscerally cerebral new film, is something of an understatement. As cataclysmic as it is, this historically scrupulous science-fiction romance concerning the discovery of the unconscious mind might have been titled War of the Worlds or The Beast From 5,000 Fathoms.

Adapted by Christopher Hampton from his play, Cronenberg’s film is at once a lucid movie of ideas, a compelling narrative, and a splendidly acted love story—a sort of lopsided triangle involving Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), the near-forgotten patient-turned-disciple who confounded both men en route to her own tragic destiny.

A Dangerous Method teleports the viewer back to the birth of psychoanalysis, when Freud was still a troubling rumor, Jung was becoming Jung, and “ambivalence” was a newly minted term. Cronenberg has characterized his own method as “a process of resurrection,” and the movie proceeds through a series of jolts, opening like an electrified gothic novel with freaked-out Spielrein hurtling by coach through the placid Swiss countryside. Her destination is the Burghölzli Clinic, where young Dr. Jung is experimenting with Dr. Freud’s newfangled talking cure. Hysteria seems too mild a word for her teeth-gnashing, air-clawing behavior.

An unlikely choice for the role, Knightley leads with her chin, weighs down her words with a slight Russian accent, incinerates her delicate beauty with a radioactive stare, and throws a contortionist fit to rival Patty Duke’s Helen Keller. It works: Her fiercely expressionist banshee act dominates the movie’s first 10 minutes and haunts it thereafter. This teenaged Russian Jewess might be the possessed heroine of Ansky’s not-yet-written Dybbuk or Lilith herself. Naturally, Jung—a pastor’s son with a thing for Jewish women as well as the so-called Jewish science—is intrigued. Liberated by therapy from her symptoms, Spielrein proves clever, intuitive, and forward. She not only blurts out what’s on her mind, which includes aspiring to become a psychoanalyst, but also eventually takes the initiative in propositioning her married doctor. Later, when their affair founders, she will contact his mentor Freud to propose herself as a patient.

Mad passion in antiseptic Switzerland! Cronenberg sticks close to the historical record as documented by letters and journals, while offering his own interpretation of the facts. Given the specimens, much of the movie seems to unfold in a pristine petri dish. The protean Fassbender plays a proper Jung, steely yet agonized; Mortensen’s self-amused, paranoid Freud is a more unusual piece of work. Mind ablaze, he sees repression everywhere. The mystical Jung believes that nothing happens by accident; for Freud, all accidents have meaning. If Jung’s deceptive gentility is matched by the movie’s hyper Masterpiece Theatre mise-en-scène—with near-constant “classical” music and crisp, gliding cinematography—it’s Freud’s startling connections that rhyme with Cronenberg’s eruptive editing, cutting from Spielrein’s bloody deflowering to the Jung family’s new lakeside house, or from Freud scolding his anointed “son and heir” for straying from “the firm ground of sexual theory” to Jung gratifying Spielrein’s desire with a vigorous spanking.

Caught between two geniuses, Spielrein is the movie’s true subject. Toward the end, Freud congratulates her on her theories of sex and death instincts, which he here understands as the recognition that desire is an inherent threat to the individual ego. Then, sensing her unresolved attachment to the ultracivilized Jung, he warns her against putting her faith in Aryans. “We’re Jews, Miss Spielrein, and Jews we will always be.” Of course, Jung has some intimations of his own. As the movie ends, he dreams that Lake Geneva is filled with corpses and red with Europe’s blood.

Jung’s nightmare prophesied Spielrein’s doom. His cozy realization that, while she might have been the love of his life, “sometimes you have to do something unforgivable to go on living,” is followed by a written postscript giving a spare account of his fate and hers: The doctor lived a long life by his Alpine lake; the patient returned home to Rostov to practice psychoanalysis and was summarily murdered, along with her daughters and hundreds of other Jews herded by the Nazis into a local synagogue.

Presenting its protagonist’s end with a stunning absence of sentimentality, A Dangerous Method turns back on itself. Spielrein was trapped from birth and obliterated in more ways than one. Less a footnote to history than its embodiment, she now seems a quintessential European who successfully mastered her own demons only to be consumed by the full force of 20th-century irrationality.

Freud imagined that prostitutes regressed to an infant’s polymorphous perversity; Jung considered prostitution a by-product of “civilized marriage.” Bertrand Bonello synthesizes Freud’s paradise lost with Jung’s social use-value in the glamorously louche House of Pleasures.

Pointedly set in the months before and after 1900, House of Pleasures projects nostalgia for the Paris bordello. Bonello’s posh maison close is a realm of beautifully dressed (and undressed) whores, alternately languid or high-spirited, if sadly victimized. Their johns are rich, their madam (filmmaker Noémie Lvovsky) affable, and their house so respectable that a 15-year-old country girl writes to apply for a position. Kids cavort in the parlor, where a client’s tame panther lolls on a divan. Yet not everything is, as the subtitles memorably put it, simply “sperm and champagne.” All the girls are in debt and vulnerable to syphilis. One john tricks the house Algerian (Hafsia Herzi) into reading a tract on the stupidity of prostitutes by Cesare Lombroso (whose work on criminal types influenced Freud), while another slashes a girl so that her face is frozen in a perpetual hideous grin.

Heaven or hell? Parisian brothels flourished in the ’20s and remained open through World War II, but Bonello presents the new century as their decline. As her rent goes up, Madam is reduced to hosting special soirees at which rich geeks paw her indentured freaks. The filmmaker gives full vent to his romanticism by staging an End of the Epoch party, with tearful sex workers dancing to “Nights in White Satin,” then steps on the mood with yet another farewell fête, commemorating Bastille Day. The prisoners are free—to walk the streets. Ironic, no?