As someone who is desperately trying to be somewhat of a budding expert in all things Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung (and desperately failing) this film was a treat for my procrastination needs a few years ago. However, upon revisiting it for this psychological themed issue I was pleasantly surprised at its accuracy.
The film is a beautifully shot exploration into the early days of psychoanalysis and the doomed friendship between Freud, played by Viggo Mortensen, and Jung, played by Michael Fassbender. The audience plays witness to Jung’s experimentation with Freud’s ‘talking cure’ and his own foray into word association experiments. Their friendship is documented through the infamous first thirteen-hour meeting, letters, and occasional visits during which we see the evolution of psychoanalytic thought. Most importantly, we get to see Freud relive with Jung the schism between mentor and mentee that he had already woefully experienced: that between himself and his own mentor several decades earlier, Joseph Breuer. While it may appear at first glance that the Sabina Spielrein love story, played by Keira Knightley, was thrown in just for sex factor, this surprisingly isn’t the case. In fact, while a lot more could have been said of Spielrein’s contributions to the psychoanalytic movement in Russia and in children’s studies the same could be said of Freud and Jung themselves in the film. While the works are important in understanding the characters themselves and the machinations of their personalities, their effects and reception is not the sole focus of the film. And thankfully so.
Overall, my complaint is that these stories could have been told far more effectively had they been split into two. Due to budget, I realise this may not have been possible. I suggest it only because the relationship between Freud and Jung, their initial and arguably longstanding merging of minds followed by Jung’s frustration-induced departure, is condensed very well considering the amount the film had to contend with. However, had a film been solely focused on their relationship and handled in the same way it would have been an excellent study. The film has done well in its portrayal of Freud’s reluctance to entertain any other possibility for hysterical symptoms than those of a sexual nature. The film, rightly, justifies his stubbornness as a product of his fears that psychoanalysis will not be taken seriously should it evolve too far outside his own initial findings from Studies On Hysteria 1893-1895. So too does the film explore the idea that Freud was intent on building a legacy, but one only has to read any introduction to any of Freud’s works to understand that he was crippled with insecurity about his work; often apologising for any offense or previous misinterpretations he caused in previous publications. This could have been explored more but then Freud was a very flawed character so perhaps it is best not to try to portray him too sympathetically.
The Spielrein and Jung relationship too could have been split into a separate film since their relationship also spanned decades and was just as complex, if not more so. Considering the debate around whether their relationship was sexual or purely psychoanalytical ‘poetry’, as Spielrein herself demurely referred to it in her private letters, the film could have played around with this far more. While some criticism has been imparted on Fassbender and Knightley for their lack of chemistry, I actually would argue this was what worked best. Spielrein’s interest in the process of psychoanalytical treatment is evident in the film from the beginning, with her symptoms seeming to alleviate the further she becomes involved in the treatment process itself. As such, it seems that sex scenes which mirror the clinical treatment process is reflective of Spielrein and Jung’s need to assess every reaction to any sort of stimulus, whether psychological or sexual.
Overall, Cronenberg did a very satisfying job. If you have any interest in psychoanalysis or detest the topic then either way this film is one to watch.