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A Dangerous Method - and Psychoanalysis and Literature Event

The recent BFI London Film Festival included a screening of David Cronenberg’s ‘A Dangerous Method’, based on the play (and screenplay) by Christopher Hampton about the relationship between Freud, Jung and Sabina Spielrein. The topic has widely been regarded an unusual one for Cronenberg, mostly known for his contributions to the horror genre. Rather refreshingly, the film doesn’t appear overly concerned with trying to either justify or deride Freudian psychoanalysis. Audience questions after the screening, to actors Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortenson and Michael Fassbender, centred on how the actors researched their roles, or whether anyone had objected that characters were not portrayed as they “really” were.

Surely such portrayal is a well-nigh impossible feat: more so given both the highly narrative and interpretative nature of psychoanalysis (and its history) itself and the difficulty of assuming that personality traits and attitudes are universal and unchanging through time. After all, it is a modern audience that the film seeks to reach, and thus contemporary concerns and ideals may often prove more pertinent than early twentieth century ones.

Nonetheless, some of the comments made by the actors spoke to the difficulty of interpreting historical concepts for a modern audience. Keira Knightley’s portrayal of the young Spielrein as a patient in Geneva has received both praise and criticism but, as she admitted after the film, it was hard for her to know how Spielrein might have behaved on admission. Knightley explained that the hospital casenotes included such descriptions as “has a hysterical fit” without ever explaining or describing what was meant. Indeed, late nineteenth and early twentieth century commentators often spoke of the “protean nature” of hysteria, a disorder considered capable of imitating almost any other disease. In late nineteenth century Paris hospitals, for example, hysteria was viewed as closely synonymous with epilepsy, while in a middle class London drawing room it might be a very different matter: associated, perhaps, with exhaustion, fainting, stomach pains or “emotional excitement”.

Psychoanalysis and literature have often been closely related, and blog readers might be interested in a forthcoming event at the Royal Society of Literature on 21 November, at which psychotherapist and popular writer Adam Phillips will reflect on the relationship between creativity and mental health, ask whether we try too hard to be happy, and explore his belief that psychotherapy is ‘a king of practical poetry’.

‘A Dangerous Method’ is out on general release in the UK on 10 February 2012.