March 2012

Arts & Letters

Cinema and its Discontents

By Peter Conrad
David Cronenberg’s 'A Dangerous Method' and Roman Polanski’s 'Carnage'

If psychoanalysis is the talking cure, perhaps the cinema is the viewing cure. In one case we gain control of the demons in our head by describing their riots to a detached interpreter; in the other we sit mutely in the darkness and watch their projected revels, dreaming with our eyes open. But whether we’re in a consulting room or a theatre, the mistake – as Freud warned about his therapeutic technique – is to believe that any cure is possible.

In David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (in national release on 29 March), Jung (Michael Fassbender) subjects his wife to a test of verbal associations by rigging up an almost cinematic contraption. Whirring gadgetry converts her nervous impulses into electrical signals that are focused into a narrow beam of light and trained on a needle, whose vacillations record an internal turmoil belied by her placid face. The results are interpreted by Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a patient who – according to the true story Cronenberg retells – was restored to health by Jung, became both his assistant and his mistress, then broke free to study his techniques and qualify as an analyst.

Jung casts out the devils that agitated the masochistic, self-disgusted Sabina, only to find himself bewitched by her and lured into complicity with her reckless erotic games: he is a physician who proves unable to heal himself. In one scene she shudders in delight as the good doctor, upright and immaculately suited, thrashes her with his belt. They double their pleasure by watching the ritual in a mirror, becoming performers in their own home movie. Is the cinema, which transforms fantasies into a dancing alternation of light and shadow, another ‘dangerous method’?

Reading Jung’s bowdlerised letters about the case, Freud (Viggo Mortensen) regards these kinky antics from a disapproving distance: sexual flagellation was no part of his prescription for psychic health. He is dismayed by Jung’s ethical lapse, because the affair with Sabina demonstrates the fallacy of Freud’s own medicinal theory that “Where id was, ego shall be”. Freud is the film’s censorious superego – sallow-faced and sad, wearily resigned to the perversity of his patients and the treachery of his protégés, forever sucking consolation from one of the putrid cigars that eventually killed him.

Sabina meanwhile embodies the raging, almost rabid id, and Knightley, who in other films has had to do no more than be languorously beautiful, turns herself inside out to dramatise the mania of the abused young woman. She writhes and kicks, her arms flail involuntarily, and her words are retched out, with spasms of the jaw that suggest she is trying to eject it from her face. A pity that Knightley’s accent, required to be gutturally Russian, sometimes reverts to the shrill petulance of the English Home Counties.

Sabina’s malady derives from beatings by her father, which, as she confesses in a mortified whisper, gave her pleasure; the shaming experience provokes her to contradict Freud by allying sex with death and celebrating its violent destruction of the ego. The ego in question belongs to the embattled, self-scourging Jung, at once liberated and destroyed by his contact with Sabina. Cronenberg shrewdly illustrates the social gap between Jung and Freud – one housed in a grand villa beside the lake in Zurich, the other in a cramped and musty Viennese flat; one pantheistically communing with nature in his sailing boat, the other stiffly promenading in the formal gardens at Schönbrunn – and demarcates the intellectual differences between them with the same clarity. Jung becomes a mystic, while Freud remains a stern and authoritarian moralist. Is psychoanalysis a science, as Freud intended, or a flirtation with shamanistic magic, as Jung makes it?

Fassbender’s performance as the tormented, self-loathing Jung is a marvel of minimalism. His eyes retreat behind tiny spectacles that rob them of empathy and openness, and only the lines on his brow – or the gash on his cheek when Sabina attacks him with a pen – allow his distress to penetrate the surface. The facade of the comfortable bourgeois philistine remains intact, but behind it he suggests the nervous breakdown of a man haunted by a cultural catastrophe for which he and Freud shared some of the blame. At the end of the film he sits, straight-backed but hollowed out by remorse, imagining in advance the irrational frenzy of World War I. Terse printed footnotes then remind us about World War II, when the Nazis hounded the dying Freud into exile and summarily executed Sabina. The method was dangerous, in Cronenberg’s judgement, because it licensed the madness that convulsed Europe during the twentieth century.

Needing to engineer a conflict between master and disciple, Christopher Hampton’s script sanitises Freud, who identified with Hannibal, the vengeful enemy of Rome, and told Jung, as the two of them were sailing to America in 1909, that they were bringing the plague to this innocent continent. But despite such simplifications, A Dangerous Method takes a sober, sorrowful look at an experiment in releasing the discontents that civilisation has always attempted to repress.


In his acrimonious sitcom Carnage (in national release), Roman Polanski studies the same collapse into anarchy under what might be laboratory conditions. Based on a play by French writer Yasmina Reza, the film takes place in a Brooklyn apartment, where two married couples attempt to resolve the legal and medical complications left behind after the son of one pair strikes and wounds the son of the other. Penelope and Michael (Jodie Foster and John C Reilly), whose child was the victim, are tender-hearted liberals; Nancy and Alan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) have a shinier, tougher corporate veneer.

Negotiations begin amicably, but before long war is declared. Insults and politically incorrect epithets fly around the room, as do a vexatious mobile phone, a handbag and a shredded bunch of expensive imported tulips. The most eloquent and unanswerable intervention comes from Nancy, who aims a cataract of chunky vomit onto the art books tastefully piled on Penelope’s coffee table. Winslet, who previously peed on screen in Holy Smoke, now adds another bodily discharge to her repertory: I shudder to think how this brave and brilliant actress will express herself next.

Polanski ventilates Reza’s claustrophobic play by adding a brief, silent epilogue to the mayhem. Down in the park where the clash between the boys occurred, a pet hamster that Michael has secretly disposed of turns up unharmed, and in the distance we notice that the boys have apparently forgotten the dispute over which their parents are still wrangling. Despite this pretence of optimism, it’s creepily significant that Zachary the malefactor – who lashes his playmate with a bamboo switch, gashing his lip and knocking out two teeth – is played by Polanski’s son Elvis. In two long shots that pretend, thanks to green-screen technology, to be filmed on location under the Brooklyn Bridge, Elvis serves as an impudent surrogate for his father (who cannot enter the United States for fear of arrest for having had unlawful sex with a minor in 1977). Alan boasts, “Our son is a maniac,” and sees no need to apologise for the assault he committed: is young Elvis being encouraged to follow the example of his own ferrety dad, who famously brandished a flick-knife in Chinatown and sniggered as he sliced the nostril of the detective played by Jack Nicholson?

It’s always fun to watch other people misbehaving, so Carnage is amusing while it lasts. But if you think about it for a while it comes to seem mean-spirited and odious. Luis Buñuel once called film “a magnificent and dangerous weapon if it is wielded by a free mind”. The weapon is more dangerous but less magnificent if wielded by a misanthrope like Polanski, who – reducing his four educated, privileged characters to wild beasts while he spares a rodent – uses it to disparage the very possibility of human freedom.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

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