In short, this is a film about psychologist C.G. Jung. Jung is underrepresented in American culture, even with all the publicity he gets in the academic circles. This is one of the first films I’m aware of that portrays Jung at all, beyond documentaries of course.
The story concentrates on Jung and his patient Sabina Spielrein. Without knowing too much about my history of Jung – I haven’t read a biography, I stay away from discussions such as The Aryan Christ because I believe all thinkers are the product of their times and environments, and I haven’t read Memories, Dreams, Reflections all the way through because I was frustrated by Jung’s arrogance – Spielrein is portrayed as Jung’s first psychoanalytic patient and the “guinea pig” for him to solidify his theories. Her analysis inspires Jung to meet Sigmund Freud, who was already published in the field of psychoanalysis, and their relationship becomes one of mentoring father to curious son and is one that fueled the fire for the psychoanalytic revolution of the last century. Jung makes the mistake of falling for Spielrien and launches into a sexual relationship with her after sending her to university at the prompting of a patient Freud sends to Jung. At this point, the story begins to follow two storylines. One is Jung’s relationship to Spielrein and the other his his relationship to Freud. Through Spielrein, Jung finds release, freedom, and an outlet for his growing theories. And in Freud, he finds a friendly face in a burgeoning field. The tensions between Freud and Jung are made evident from their first meeting. Some are economic – Jung is nonchalant about his wealth, which annoys Freud, who struggles with his status – and some are a matter of transference. Freud makes it clear that he sees Jung as his intellectual heir, while Jung doesn’t return the sentiments. It is in this last point that I feel the movie advertisements are misleading. The movie shows Spielrein as a catalyst for the separation between Freud and Jung, but not as the sole cause as the ads inform us: “Sabina Spielrein, the beautiful but disturbed young woman who comes between them.” What comes between the two thinkers is Jung’s willingness to embrace unscientific approaches in his psychology, whereas Freud held firm that only proven science was acceptable. I suspect that Freud’s adherence to science is the product of his Jewish heritage and a constant life-battle to be accepted.
Had this film, directed by David Cronenberg, not been about historical figures, based on historical facts, it could easily have fallen into cliché. But because this figures are so important, it adds a dimension to the film that only films “based on true events” can.
A little about the actors: As someone who is not a Freudian, I appreciated Viggo Mortenson’s portrayal of Freud. He made him human. Authentic. Kiera Knightly offered one of her best portrayals, and I would be disappointed if she didn’t get some nod from the award circuit. Occasionally “Kiera Knightly” leaked through her characterization, but she was able to bring Spielrein to life. Spielrien, it should be noted, was sent to university by Jung as part of her treatment. In an era when women were discouraged from going to school, she wanted to be a doctor and became a contributor to psychoanalysis in her own right. I can only imagine that if she had survived World War II, her contributions to the field would have greatly influenced psychology. And there’s Michael Fassbender as Jung. I’m not too familiar with Fassbender as an actor, but I did enjoy his performance in Jane Eyre. His portrayal of Jung captures Jung’s introverted awkwardness, his curiosity, and his internal struggles with his theories and his passions. In short, he came across less like the arrogant jerk I interpreted him to be in MDR, and more human.
This film is based on a play, “The Talking Cure” and a book, A Most Dangerous Game. It is interesting to note that in the acknowledgments at the end of the film, the Freud archives are thanked, but nothing with Jung.
I think that this film is a valuable contribution to the study of Jung. It makes the suggestion that Spielrein influenced his theories, especially the animus/anima, which I understand may not be wholly accurate, but we can forgive a little Hollywood license. The film is reverential in nature, not critical, but it does allow you, the viewer, to be the judge. There is some S&M sex in there, but it is portrayed discreetly. From the advertisements about S&M, I was half expecting this film to be comparable to Eyes Wide Shut. Jung and psychology are the focus, not the sex. We are even given hints that the sex is what fueled Jung’s theories to go in directions away from Freud and his sexual theories.
One last note, the film ends on the eve of World War I. In the obligatory “what happened next” notes at the end of the film, we are informed that Freud died from cancer after being forced out of Austria by the Nazis. Spielrein worked as a psychologist for Communist Russia, but died a widow, assassinated by Nazis in the war (she was Jewish). Jung lived a full life, died peacefully, outliving his wife, Emma Jung, and mistress, Toni Wolff. The note makes reference to his nervous breakdown in World War I, which is hinted by the end of the movie. This nervous breakdown, we know, sparked Jung’s theories into new directions.