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‘A Dangerous Method’: Misperceptions about Psychoanalysis

Most professionals who go to see films that fictionalize their own field often object to Hollywood’s blunders and distortions. I remember my first-year associate friends howling at the movie theater, many years ago, when Glenn Close in Jagged Edge told her senior partner that she “already had a case” — as if an associate at a law firm worked on only one case at a time!

As a psychoanalyst, I have some problems with David Cronenberg’s film A Dangerous Method, starring Viggo Mortenson as Sigmund Freud, Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung and Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein. Although the background history was clearly researched with great care, screenwriter Christopher Hampton and presumably director Cronenberg know little about how psychoanalysis actually proceeds.

What bothers me most is the absence of the notion of an unconscious mind. Although in their conversations, Freud suggests to Jung that he has murderous impulses toward him, presumably unconscious, when it comes to Jung’s work with patient Spielrein, the idea of unconscious memories, impulses or ideas is entirely absent.

In those early years, Freud and his followers believed symptom relief came from abreacting traumatic memories, either by recovering the lost memory and putting it into words, or working through that memory by bringing it into relation with other conscious thoughts, memories and feelings. Abreaction occurs as a normal part of our daily experience, but in trauma, the memory is not abreacted and instead remains unconscious.

According to LaPlanche and Pontalis, “The effect of an absence of abreaction is the persistence of the group of ideas which lie at the root of the neurotic symptoms; they remain unconscious and isolated from the normal course of thought” (emphasis added).

When Jung begins his psychoanalytic work with Spielrein, however, helping her to find relief from what was then called hysteria, she’s entirely conscious of and recalls with perfect clarity the sexual excitement she felt the first time her father beat her. With little prompting, she relates in great detail the history of her masochistic pleasure throughout childhood.

Jung does nothing to help her uncover lost memories and makes no connections for her; all he does is listen. In reality, for the “talking cure” to be successful, it wasn’t enough for the client simply to talk about her conscious memories. Unconscious memories needed to be recovered, and this usually involved active participation by the psychoanalyst.

My other objection is the way dream interpretation is represented. By 1905, when Freud published his pioneering classic The Interpretation of Dreams, he had already developed the technique of free association as an aid to deciphering the dreams of his clients. In that work, he gives many fascinating examples of how a chain of associations led him to an understanding of the dream’s meaning — his own dreams as well as those of his patients and friends.

In this film, however, Freud operates more like a psychic who specializes in decoding dreams. He never asks for an association, never tries to find the dream’s meaning by deciphering its context within a chain of mental associations. It’s as if he has a code book with a key to all the symbols and their meaning.

The epilog to this film describes the fate of all the principle historical figures, concluding with Carl Jung. It states that Jung went on to become the greatest psychologist of the world, which greatly overstates his importance and betrays a certain bias. However valuable Carl Jung’s ideas and contributions were, it was surely Sigmund Freud who was the greatest psychologist of the 20th century. So many of his seminal ideas have become basic assumptions of modern culture, an integral part of our vocabulary and the things we say to one another — You’re so repressed, Why do you always gets so defensive?, Stop projecting! and You’re in denial, to name but a few.

Apart from the collective unconscious, which few people truly understand, Carl Jung’s language remained the specialized vocabulary of his devotees without the culture-shattering effect of Freud’s contributions. Given this bias, I suspect that the filmmakers were less interested in portraying psychoanalytic method accurately than in depicting Freud as an ideological tyrant and Jung as the true genius who suffered under him. If you believed this film’s version of events, you’d think that Freud was a timid little thinker who didn’t contribute much and stifled the true genius of his protegee Jung.

A couple of other issues that bothered me. First, the tired old meme about the patient having more passion than the repressed psychotherapist. Sigh. It might have been a compelling idea 40 years ago when I first saw Equus on stage, but it’s getting a little old.

Even worse, the conclusion of this film tells us that what truly matters in life boils down to romantic passion. In their final meeting, Jung tells Spielrein that his love for her was the most important experience of his lifetime, helping him to understand who he truly was as a person. More important than his marriage, his experience of fatherhood, his fascinating work with other clients, his ardent study of the occult, and so on.

For a man who explored vast regions of the human mind, our spiritual life, the unconscious symbolism that unites us, and so many other interesting phenomena, this seems a remarkably banal thing to say. I would have expected more from David Cronenberg.

‘A Dangerous Method’: Misperceptions about Psychoanalysis

Joseph Burgo PhD

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APA Reference
Burgo PhD, J. (2012). ‘A Dangerous Method’: Misperceptions about Psychoanalysis. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Feb 2012
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