Friday 2 March 2012

DANGEROUS INDEED (spoilers for 'A Dangerous Method"; TW for consensual kink and references to child abuse)


Posted by Goblin

So. I have a staggering, shocking announcement, people. I AM GOING TO DISCUSS A FILM I LIKE. This isn’t quite as unusual as it may appear. It’s more that usually films I love come with caveats: see Dragon Tattoo, for example, which I was terribly excited about. The vast majority of contemporary cultural output, particularly American cultural output, comes with problematic ideologies as standard. So I’ve become the person that comes out of what friends consider a perfectly enjoyable film (Stardust, say, or Up) and writes the kind of review that loses one friends, acquaintances, and to date at least one lover.


A few days ago, I saw A Dangerous Method, part of the story of Sabina Spielrein, pioneering psychologist, patient and confidant of Jung and Freud, and (probably) Jung’s mistress at the turn of the nineteenth century. (Good biographical overview here). Focusing on her relationship with Jung and Freud, we follow her as she arrives hysterical, becomes an experimental subject for Jung’s new talking therapy, recovers, becomes a psychologist in her own right, becomes Jung’s (kinky) lover, is heartbroken when he has a crisis of conscience and leaves her; forces him to confess to Freud; breaks his heart in turn when she travels to Vienna to study under Freud; becomes an authority in her own right; marries; and leaves for Russia to set up her own practice. There were *so*many ways this film cd’ve gone wrong. Primarily, in making Sabina the passive tool of great men without ideas or intiative in her own right – but also in objectifying her, sexualising her ‘madness’ and vulnerability, polarising kindly Jung and bad clinic (which didn’t happen); distinguishing the kinky sex scenes as what *weird* people do (instead of as loving interactions, which are *fucking hot* by the way); presenting her victimhood as her appeal.

Doing any of that would have been all too easy given an early c20th cultural context; perhaps one of the many impressive qualities of the film is that they *didn’t* do this, didn’t play to contemporary prejudice with an ‘eew, look how badly those Edwardians treated their women, isn’t it great everything’s all fine and equal now’, schtick. Whilst our first sight of Sabina is indeed as a screaming woman in a white dress being physically manhandled into the clinic, not only is Jung kindly and completely non-judgmental upon her arrival, treating her calmly and with respect, but even when she causes trouble – messing around with food, running away to swim in the pond, screaming at people – she is treated kindly, fairly and as a responsible human being. (Frankly, given my own experiences with contemporary MH inpatient units, this is something from which modern psych wards could learn something.)

Further, partly thanks to a brilliant performance by Knightley, Sabina’s neurosis, or psychosis, is anything but erotic. She jerks uncontrollably, in angular, aggressive, defensive movements; her spidery limbs alternately wrench themselves into a protective cage around her body and lurch loose. Her face is distorted, lower jaw jutting, voice stuttering, eyes frantic and face often smeared with tears or mud. As Sabina recovers, these mannerisms become less pronounced, but are still evident at moments of crisis, her shamed (and moving) confession to profound sexual masochism both apotheosis and swansong. Following this confession (and the two-year hiatus in the film’s chronology), the recovered Sabina is refreshingly and profoundly self-possessed. After an initial breakdown at Jung leaving her the first time, she gathers herself, informs him that (essentially) she is worth more than this and he ‘can’t treat her this way’, writes to an initially disbelieving and patronising Freud, and forces Jung to ‘tell the truth’. (Freud’s still patronising, but never mind.) From that point on, as well as an intellectual equal, her emotional self-possession (NOT that this should be taken as an index of worth or strength; it is the passionate emotional and intellectual self-expression of both Sabina and Jung that makes them so attractive as characters, to me at least) is equal to or greater than that of the men concerned: after their second period as lovers, it is Jung who is distraught, sobbing in her lap in a pleasing mirror image of her earlier sobbing in his after their first parting. She matures visibly over the course of the film, being markedly more together than a saddened and wistful Jung by the last scene, and possessed of considerable professional and personal confidence.

Moreover, her relationship with Jung post-recovery is emphatically one of equals. They share ideas (often at Sabina’s initiative), take an equal part in conversations (without any obvious ‘young Sabina asks, wise authority Jung answers’ pattern, despite the obvious space to construct such dynamics out of their relationship),and obviously socialise as friends as well as/rather than doctor and patient, although wider public opinion of such behaviour goes – again, refreshingly – undiscussed. For example: out on a boat trip, Sabina raises the subject of Wagner’s operas, explaining her passion for them and her ideas about relevant psychological tropes, discussing (for the first time in the film: a hugely significant psychological concept, and it’s Sabina’s, not Jung’s or Freud’s) the connection between sexual/romantic impulses and the death wish. Jung responds by saying (I’m paraphrasing!) ‘How extraordinary, I’ve been thinking about Wagner recently!’; Sabina responds with a) a directly challenging question (‘Which is your favourite opera?’) and b) when he responds with her choice, confidently echoing him and giving reasons, before we cut to a scene where a room of subjects listen to the opera. Sabina (foreground) scribbles notes; Jung (background) just listens. It shouldn’t be this unusual to see the development of a relationship in this way, with the woman demonstrating both agency and initiative, but it really is; never mind that in this case a) we’re in early c20th Europe and b) the male in the case is not only a recognised psychological authority but the woman’s therapist and doctor. If I hadn’t been so busy enjoying the film, I’d’ve fallen off my cinema seat.

How they get together, too, is mutual. They’re talking in impassioned tones; Sabina bemoans her lack of sexual experience and kisses Jung; he makes some comment about how he thought the man was meant to take the initiative (without, ftr, implying that this was definitively the case), and she says ‘well, if you ever want to take the initiative, I live up there, with the bay window,’ and walks off. He agonises at length for a few scenes, and then knocks on the door. They kiss (note the intransitive verb there.) Dot dot dot.

Except, not dot dot dot, because this is me, and I damn well want to talk about kink. Sabina’s confessing to being profoundly and sensually masochistic since childhood is the catalyst for her recovery. It’s noticeable that Jung – as always, and I’ll come to this – in his role as psychological authority, is completely accepting of and non-judgemental about this.[1] Whilst their first encounter is seen only briefly, more in introduction and aftermath than process, several times subsequently there’s BDSM involved. Jung spanks Sabina over a sofa (AND SHE COMES! IN A MAINSTREAM FILM, SOMEBODY COMES FROM SPANKING! ZOMG! HAVE THE PEOPLE BEEN TOLD?); she begs him to ‘punish me’; she’s tied to the bed with one belt and being beaten with another (and ZOMG this scene is hot. I came over all peculiar.) Several points to be made here.

   1)    this is not portrayed as weird, alarming, unusual, symptomatic of dysfunction or abuse, reason to not empathise with the characters or anything else; just a normal and natural part of their relationship. Hard to overemphasise just how revolutionary this is.
2)  Sabina’s kink is by no means held to reduce her standing in any other sphere, be it intellectual or social. She is still portrayed as a highly intelligent student, original theorist (explaining ideas to both Jung and Freud), and an eminently competent psychologist, and pioneering ideas are attributed to and explained by her. She may also happen to be a masochist, but HER CHARACTER IS NOT DEFINED BY THIS OR BY ANY OTHER ASPECT OF HER SEXUALITY (save, perhaps, her heterosexuality; but then, that’s historical record, and whilst the making of films based on het love stories is undoubtedly a representational issue, at least this is het, quite possibly open – the critical jury is out on whether Jung’s wife knew of his infidelity first with Spielrein and later with Toni Wolfe, but there’s at least a suggestion in the film that she did –  and kinky, right?)
3) Jung does not treat Sabina as anything other than an intellectual equal when not in a sexual context. Whilst there is absolutely nothing wrong with negotiated 24/7 D/s dynamics, rarely if ever is such negotiation shown in films portraying such a dynamic (*cough*Secretary*splutter*). The assumption that D/s must mean 24/7, that just because he spanks Sabina Jung must always be dominant and authoritative towards her, that kink has to be the only defining feature of any relationship in which it takes place, is pernicious, ultimately damaging, and common in mainstream reps of BDSM, and it simply doesn’t happen here.
4) Their relationship is loving and mutual. BDSM activity is clearly pleasing to both parties, and Sabina’s inner psychological drive towards it – and enjoyment of it – are a fundamental part of the film. See point 1.
5)   Sabina’s masochism is asserted as predating – rather than being a result of – her childhood beatings by her father. Kink is not necessarily the result of abuse! Who Knew!
6)    The scenes are hot. Well, OK, that may be just me, but I still feel it’s an important point. They’re loving, connected, consensual and full of tender savagery. Mmm.

Oh, and finally. Not disconnectedly. JUNG. I’ll try to rein in my enthusiasm here, because I’m well aware that part of the reason I liked the film and the story so much was because of my personal response to Jung’s character (and also to MICHAEL FASSEBENDER DOING VICTORIAN DOM, ohgod, but that’s my, er, problem.)[2] I felt his representation to be incredibly well managed, at least within the context of the film’s limited narrative arc. As a therapist, he is quiet, centred, undramatic, unsuggestive, and completely non-judgemental. We’re in the early c20th, and he quite calmly asks a distraught girl half his age ‘were you naked?’ (‘yes’) ‘Were you masturbating?’ (‘yes’). And it’s not an issue, he’s not aroused by it or moved by it, he shows no personal reaction to such information at all, in marked and respectable contrast to, say, ‘In Treatment’ , where Gabriel Byrne’s therapist’s insertion of personal  (as in, related to self not to patient) emotional response and involvement into therapeutic sessions is incredibly jarring and grossly unprofessional. Even during her frantic, self-loathing confession of masochism, he remains focused on *her* emotional state when in a therapeutic role. Even when Sabina arrives at the clinic, evidently severely mentally ill, he treats her calmly, respectfully, with understanding and explanation and trust, recognising her personhood (eg, her long-held ambition to be a doctor) by offering her responsible work in his clinic. He relates to her as a person, not an illness; he trusts her, and she responds by working carefully and successfully for him.

In a sense, Jung in this film makes a damn fine example of the good sides of D/s. To a certain extent, I know, I’m probably projecting: after all, the most attractive qualities to me, bar none and in order, are understanding, intelligence and kindness, which are precisely Fassbender’s Jung’s defining features. But. He’s never coercive, bullying or domineering; whilst I may not like the crisis of conscience that initially prompts him to leave Sabina, his method of dealing with it is at least understandable and doesn’t take advantage of any D/s dynamic they may have. At all times he treats Sabina with respect, as an intellectual equal.

I don't know whether it's the film's theatrical origins, or Croenenberg's beautiful, attentive direction, but really I found Dangerous Method remarkably (well, postably!) moving and well-constructed. I haven't seen the play or read the biography, although I will asap (it's based on a play by Christopher Hampton); one criticism my friend made was that it was a bit 'talky', essentially a series of conversations interspersed with kinky sex. My response was, of course, 'Well exactly! What's not to like?!' but then I really like intelligent and verbal films about complex human interactions, and aren't too bothered if there aren't any fight scenes. YMMV. Ultimately, this is a film about two (well, three, but Freud’s role in all this wd take another 1000 words, which I don’t have time for right now) highly intelligent, highly emotional, powerfully perceptive, equally respectable individuals who just happen to fall in love and be kinky sometimes. And that rocks my fuckin’ universe.

[1] It’s slightly squicky when – prior to their relationship developing – Jung mentions this to Freud in refutation of one of his theories, but given that I’m used to the contemporary therapist mentoring system and understand the reasons for it, I can accept that at this stage Freud is essentially his mentor and Sabina a successful case. [back]

[2] I blame my mother, a social work student in the late 60s, and my shameless devouring of her bookshelf at far too early an age. Jung rocks. [back]


  1. "The assumption that D/s must mean 24/7, that just because he spanks Sabina Jung must always be dominant and authoritative towards her, that kink has to be the only defining feature of any relationship in which it takes place, is pernicious, ultimately damaging, and common in mainstream reps of BDSM, and it simply doesn’t happen here."

    "Kink is not necessarily the result of abuse! Who Knew!"

    Yay! This actually sounds like a film I'd like to see. I re-watched "Secretary" a few weeks ago and it really rubbed me the wrong way (no pun intended?) for exactly those reasons...

  2. :)So glad! I'd certainly be interested in what you made of it. I think I was too busy being bowled over by a) its lack of ideological headfuckery and b) Jung to notice how good it was as a film or otherwise, and I trust your judgement..

  3. The assumption that D/s must mean 24/7, that just because he spanks Sabina Jung must always be dominant and authoritative towards her, that kink has to be the only defining feature of any relationship in which it takes place, is pernicious, ultimately damaging, and common in mainstream reps of BDSM, and it simply doesn’t happen here.

    Interestingly, I always found that the London kink scene seemed way too focused on social/domestic D/s - lots of people seemed to have 24/7 arrangements. I like to do fun kinky stuff in the bedroom, I don't want someone telling me what to do all the time.

    palmer x