To my surprise, the last few movies I’ve reviewed for this blog have included positive representations of mental illnesses, with relatively minor issues.
This week’s movie, A Dangerous Method, is not so positive — nor will this review be as kind! Though, really, my review this week focuses less on the portrayal of mental illness and more on the erasure of an important contributor to child psychology and psychoanalytic theory: Sabina Spielrein.
First brought to my attention by my undergrad psychology professor many years ago, this film seemed to be everything that I would want from a movie: psychology themes, romance, and attractive actors (my standards are often pretty low). But what started out as a promising look at the origins of psychoanalytic theory turned out to just be a love triangle with terms like “countertransference” sprinkled in for effect.
A Dangerous Method is a 2011 period drama looking at the relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), his patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), and his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) during the early 1900s. It begins with the (historically accurate) hospitalization of Spielrein for the now-defunct diagnosis of hysteria.
According to director David Cronenberg, the jaw-jutting and other behaviors were based on historical film archives of women who were hospitalized for hysteria at the time. As I have never seen these sorts of film archives, I won’t fault him for that. But I will take some time to fault the entire concept of hysteria.
Hysteria, stemming from the Greek word for “uterus,” was a diagnosis exclusively given to women displaying various emotional problems during this time period. Often, these women were considered sexually promiscuous, difficult, or just didn’t exhibit proper behavior for women of the time (i.e., not wanting to be mothers). Of course, once science started to take a real look at (white) women and more (white) women became researchers themselves, the concept of hysteria fell out of favor (because it doesn’t exist).
In the film, we see Spielrein display many symptoms that do not necessarily correlate to one specific modern diagnosis — she hallucinates, has extensive trauma, is intermittently suicidal and grandiose, and her younger sister died of typhoid immediately before her “breakdown.” One could argue that her presentation is consistent with complex trauma (or complex PTSD), which remains one of the most misunderstood and debated syndromes of recent years.
As her “hysteria” resolves, Spielrein expresses her interest in becoming a psychiatrist, and eventually acts as Jung’s assistant in his experiments at the hospital. Jung notices her intelligence and mentors her educational journey, while also continuing to provide his own version of Freud’s talk therapy. As Spielrein divulges her history of sexual trauma, however, their relationship changes.
According to the letters written at the time, Spielrein and Jung were never explicit about any sexual activity — but this movie sure makes it explicit. Quickly, their therapeutic relationship turns into a romantic and then sadomasochistic relationship, and I suddenly wanted the relationship between my eyeballs and my brain to end.
Obviously, this storyline creates a juicier drama that’s more dramatic for a film, but it severely undermines the importance of Spielrein’s contributions to the psychoanalytic field. The movie shows some of her ingenuity and thoughtfulness, but spends most of the time portraying her as manipulative, unstable, and desperate to continue her inappropriate relationship with Jung. It also does nothing to help out psychoanalysis as a field, as it perpetuates well-worn Freudian stereotypes.
Overall, this movie turned out to be forgettable and enraging at the same time! Which is unfortunate, because I feel it could have explored the figures of Jung, Freud, and Spielrein in a more nuanced fashion. I also honest to god cannot remember some of the main plot points because it was just so boring. I came away with a sense of frustration and a renewed effort to look up everything I could about the real Sabina Spielrein.
Sabina Spielrein was a fascinating person whose life was so much more amazing than the small bit that’s included in this movie. Not only did she greatly influence the early development of psychoanalytic theory (as shown partially in this film), but she also shaped future generations of child psychologists and psychiatrists. In fact, one of her patients and students was Jean Piaget, whose child development theories I have studied extensively in my social work graduate classes.
Fortunately, there has been a movement in recent years to recognize Spielrein, along with many other female psychoanalysts of the time, as invaluable contributors to the field. In doing research for this post, I came across a 2002 documentary, My Name Was Sabina Spielrein, that by description alone seems to be a better tribute to her life and accomplishments — though it seems almost impossible to find and watch. Spielrein definitely deserves a better legacy than this movie portrays.
But if you’re interested in seeing some lite historical 50 Shades plus Viggo Mortensen with an impressive beard, then I guess this is the movie for you.