In the opening scenes of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method we see Keira Knightley (as Sabina Spielrein) play mad. There’s no doubt about it. She’s hysterical. She bends forward at the waist, dry-retching as if she’s swallowed a wild chimpanzee. Her teeth chatter. She swims in a fishpond, cackling loudly, covered in mud, as the hospital’s male attendants prod and entice her. As the calm doctor Carl Jung applies his new method, the ‘talking cure’, she reveals very quickly that her father used to take all her clothes off (the first time when she was four) and beat her. And the revelation that fuels her sexual energies from then on? She used to like it.
(Note to self: never strip and humiliate children in case they develop serious belt fetish.)
From then on, the film ignores Spielrein (after a bit of hanky panky she is cured! she is cured!) and become a turgid account of the relationship between Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), reduced to a kind of one-upmanship of I’ll show you my dream if you show me yours. The dreams they dissect together are so obvious I’m surprised they don’t feature teeth falling out or going down steps into the basement or snakes writhing in water; you know, you’ve all had them. But these dreams are symbolic, see, with a capital S, because of the horrors that are to come (the holocaust): there’s a wave of water about to crash down.
Despite Spielrein’s brilliant intellect and challenge to the authority of Freud, she’s mainly pictured in corset (falling delicately off nipples) strapped and bent over the couch while Jung flagellates himself on all accounts. I’m not a prude. I quite like to watch. But I want to know why this turns her on. What is the connection between humiliation and sexual pleasure? What is the even deeper connection to her father? And why does Jung administering this punishment apparently offer her such freedom? Is it really her only way to connect to the world? Cronenberg ignores all of this. It’s so much easier just to film a bit of coy S+M in a mirror.
I’m trying to think of other films that employ a bit of S+M. The wonderful Secretary springs to mind, enlivened with a bit of humour and deadpan performances. Then there’s Salo (that I’ve always been meaning to watch, but the thought of it…), David Cronenberg’s own Crash (an unforgettable piece of filmmaking based on JG Ballard’s novel) and The Piano Teacher, with Isabelle Huppert’s usual knockout performance. (Serious fetishists have their own opinions, of course. See the serious discussion here.)
But look I’m no expert. The idea of masochistic sexual play makes me want to choke myself (now hang on a minute). Some may say any fiction writer in Australia is a masochist. But I think if it came to the crunch, I’d be much more interested in being a sadist. There’s a world of opportunity there.
For a more interesting look at a brilliant woman confronting mental illness, see Jane Campion’s classic biopic of Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table. Actress Kerry Fox goes inward and quiet; it’s a mesmerising performance to watch. I understand she’s not seen as an hysteric, and she doesn’t get off on S+M, but it’s an incredibly moving and powerful film, in its understated way.
Anyone into a bit of S+M? What are the most interesting examples of films and literature that explore it (you can post anonymously of course!)?
Or have you seen A Dangerous Method? What did you think of Spielrein’s character? The relationship between Freud and Jung?