I didn’t know much about this film going into it, I believed it involved the life long work of analytical psychologist Carl Jung, as played by Michael Fassbender, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, played by Viggo Mortensen, and their relationship to one another. Not being a psychologist in any sense of the term, more an admirer of the human condition, I thought I would get an entertaining ride and a bit of an education on the father of both processes and with it being a David Cronenberg film, I felt in relatively safe hands. How wrong I was.
The film, which also stars Kiera Knightley as Sabina Speilrein and Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross, starts off with Spielrein being committed to the care of Jung as he begins to test, the still relatively young, psychoanalytical principles set up by Freud. Speilrein suffers from anxiety attacks and nervous compulsions and slowly through conversations and word association practices Speilrein learns to lead a relatively normal life, however, still suffers from a sexual compulsion. She opts to follow in the foot steps of Jung and practice psychology where she thrives and keeps in close contact with her mentor. Jung, in the meantime, seems at first enwrapped by the practices of Freud, but upon meeting Freud for the first time, becomes increasingly aware of his narrow view on the field. As the film unfolds Jung and Spielrein engage in a sexually heated affair, Jung grows increasingly cold against Freuds theory of phsychoanalysis and develops his own theory of analytical psychology. Once Spielrein and Jungs affair falls apart, Speilrein, feeling betrayed, grows increasingly towards Freuds theory of psychoanalysis. Yung, dejected, hurt and emotionally drained is left lost in his own thoughts with no one to help him focus and hone his theories.
I hope that wasn’t too over bearing or difficult to read but trust me, it couldn’t be any harder than sitting down to watch the film. What really upset me about this film is that it pretty much decides to ignore the principle pulling power of the piece from the onset, both that of the relationship between Jung and Freud and the psychological theories they both produced. Instead it decides to tell a very convoluted story of love and betrayal about Jung, Speilrein along with Freud and very basically and ineffectively gives you a glimpse of Jung and Freuds relationship coming apart at the seems. I don’t know about everyone else who saw the film but for me the interesting part of this story is in how these people, both at one stage great admirers of each others work, became intellectual enemies over the course of several years. The treatment of this relationship, in the film however, is mainly mentioned through a montage of letter readings back and forth, slowly, and very dully, to bring to audience up to speed. This relationship should have been the driving force of the movie, not the side story.
The other problem, as I mentioned above, was how they dealt with explaining the actually psychology produced by both characters. Throughout the film we are given a relatively simplistic understanding of Freuds theory of psychoanalysis with references to the obvious points on his sexual fixation but with regards to Yungs theory of analytical psychology, we are given no insight whatsoever as to what his counter point was. At one point we are given a brief glimpse of his appreciation for the religious angle of psychology and at another stage an even briefer account of his interest in mysticism but at no time are we given a genuine, even straightforward account of his psychological principles. The film seems to use Yung as an empty vessel to bombard everyone else’s ideas off of, as if he is the audience and what he is told is for our benefit in a very uninteresting and matter of fact way, making Yung a wholly unappealing and unsympathetic character, what does he stand for? We do not know. I, personally, felt that I have learned more about each others practices by being an avid Fraiser fan, Fraiser being a Freudian and Niles being a Jungian.
The film was also shot a little awkwardly, it took me a while to put my finger on it but when I saw the effect Cronenberg was using I was very unimpressed. Sorry if this gets a bit technical, I shall try to break it down to its simplest form. The film seems to have been shot using mainly wide-angle lenses, this, for the most part, gives a very broad sense of focus, we can clearly see everything that is going on in the foreground as well as everything that is going on in the background. However, it seems, in post production Cronenberg opted to blur a lot of the miscellaneous and unused portions of the screen leaving just what he wanted to leave in the foreground and background in focus and this actually irked me, hence, as I said, it took me a while to put my finger on what the problem was but I knew very well that there was a problem that needed to be addressed. I was more caught up on what was wrong with the image that what was going on in the scene. This, possibly, could be due to my critical eye but I don’t think so, I have to assume that everyone else is seeing what I am seeing and therefore must be experiencing what I am experiencing. The effect achieved by this post production focal blur was unnatural. The lens of a camera is meant to replicate the inner workings of the human eye, as such when we look a big landscape image we have a lot of what we see in focus, and when we are, for instance, reading a book, or this text for example, we are focused on something small and everything in our peripheral vision is out of focus. The camera effect used by Cronenberg goes against the very basic way in which our eyes work and is as such, unnatural and off putting.
Finally a little word on the acting in this film, for me, for the most part, I found the acting particularly good, if not a little stagey at some points, especially towards the beginning. Fassbender as Yung was a stoic figure, even if, as I said, his character was only a vessel to provide information to the audience. Mortensen as Freud was credible and I had no trouble in believing him as the always cigar smoking father of psychology. Kiera Knightley I found quiet impressive, at least at the start, she seemed to throw herself into the role of a psychologically scared, contorting her entire body effectively to replicate a sense of nervous unease. As the movie went on however and her condition improved I found her less appealing and began to question why she was the only one attempting to put on an accent, one that seemed to jump from Jewish to English and even American in parts. My friend, however, found her unbearable and disliked her consistent ‘neck’ acting.
All in all the film was lacklustre and I am very surprised that it has been given such high praise by critics around, maybe they took more away from it than I did or maybe they know better all round, that is for you to decide as it is with any movie you go to see. Where the film does seem to triumph is in its often-hilarious dialogue, which pops in quite a bit at the beginning of the movie but as more serious matters come to the fore dwindles out in preference for drama. I suppose it is quite difficult to write a film about psychologists but then again, no one asked them to make the film maybe these things are better left on paper.