‘A Dangerous Method’ and Hollywood’s blocked feelings about psychiatry


Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung and Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud in “A Dangerous Method,” in which two have a falling-out over the treatment of a patient, whom Jung sleeps with. (Liam Daniel/Sony Pictures Classics)
December 17, 2011

Depending how you look at it, director David Cronenberg’s new film, “A Dangerous Method,” about Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and the origins of psychotherapy, is yet another psychiatric cliche, or a meticulously realistic look at the psychoanalytic process.

Psychoanalyst Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) sleeps with hottie patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) — cliche. But the “talking cure” actually helps the patient get better — reality.

“The cliche is true,” laughs Cronenberg. “Jung did sleep with his patients a few times. And because this is accurate, and Jung and Freud were establishing the parameters of psychoanalysis at the time, this was the model for sleeping with your patients.”

Cronenberg obviously sees the humor in this is-it-real-or-is-it-the-movies? dichotomy. But no matter how audiences relate to “A Dangerous Method,” it’s the latest example of the film community’s obsession with psychiatry and psychoanalysis. That fascination dates from the early days of cinema, when psychiatrists — often called alienists — were confused with hypnotists and clairvoyants.

“Psychiatry is normally used as humor, although there are some sinister dramas where it’s really melodramatic,” says Cronenberg. “I think moviemakers are afraid to present it as it is: It’s difficult, it’s complex, you have to be reasonably educated for psychoanalysis to be good for you.”

“I don’t think most people understand mental illness, and therefore the treatment is less understood,” adds Sander Gilman, who teaches the history of psychiatry at Emory University. “And media reflect public opinion, and shape that.”

Psychoanalytic practitioners have, in fact, often been portrayed as everything from avant-garde quacks to heavy-breathing sex addicts and heavily accented, overly intellectual foreigners out of touch with reality. Movies have shown treatment as ineffectual, or even abusive in a snake pit of an asylum.

“There was a brief period during World War II when Americans were desperate for anything to help them through grief and trauma, and there are films where psychiatrists are idealized,” says Krin Gabbard, co-author (with his brother Glen) of “Psychiatry and the Cinema,” who is referring to classic films such as “Now, Voyager” and “Spellbound,” with their empathetic psychiatrists. Then came what Gabbard refers to as the “golden age” of the 1950s and ‘60s, when, in movies such as “Fear Strikes Out” and “David and Lisa,” you see, as he describes it in his book, “the fully integrated human being in psychiatrist’s clothing.”

Yet with the political and social upheavals of the late ’60s and ’70s, psychiatry came to be seen as a way to enforce conformity, and, says Gilman, “now the new asylum is taking people’s freedom, and the insane are sort of outliers of society.” The template here is “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and the eternally scary Nurse Ratched.

These days, the images are all over the place. TV shows like “The Sopranos” and “In Treatment” provide a more nuanced look at the talking cure, what Gabbard refers to as “a more consoling version of psychotherapy.”

But in today’s movies, says Gilman, mental illness is all too often associated with criminality. Moreover, “I see more and more a de-emphasis on the notion of treatment, to the ‘Girl, Interrupted’ model — ‘I have to get myself out of this.’ This is the era of psychotropic drugs — if you go to a psychiatrist in the 21st century, you’re not going for help in your ability to get out of your illness, but you’re going to be given drugs to eliminate the symptoms.”

What goes around comes around. In “A Dangerous Method,” Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen) and Jung spar over whether psychotherapy should simply help a person discover why he or she is disturbed, or also deal with how they can become better. The debate seems to carry down to the present day, which means that confusion about the psychotherapeutic method is still with us.

“When Freud invented this relationship between the analyst and the patient, it was incomparable,” says Cronenberg. “You were going to a stranger who was to be nonjudgmental and is only encouraging you to understand yourself. But then you get the complication of transference, where you project onto the analyst your emotions, and that gets strange.”

“Most people don’t understand what goes on in a therapeutic situation when two people are in a room talking and one is divulging secrets,” adds Gabbard. “Most people believe when one is telling secrets, it can only lead to something more intense [like an affair, or other unprofessional conduct]. The fact you see it over and over again in the movies, suggests there is this misunderstanding.”

The bottom line, says Gilman, is that no movie really gets it right. “Every film made about mental illness and psychiatry is simultaneously the best and the worst,” he says, “because it cannot reflect real-life experience. This shapes the way people imagine psychiatry and mental illness, and it doesn’t facilitate people wanting to seek out psychiatrists to treat mental illness.”

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