David Cronenberg is not director shy in exploring the strangeness of sexuality. So it seems obvious that he would tackle psychoanalysis pioneers Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. Based on Christopher Hampton's screenplay adaptation of John Kerr's book, the conflict between Freud and Jung centers around their relationship with patient / future psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein, who will challenge their thoughts on repression.
Jung (Michael Fassbender, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS) has decided to try talk-therapy for the first time on his new patient Spielrein (Keira Knightley, PRIDE & PREJUDICE). The young woman is suffering from violent seizures, driven by years of abuse from her father and the repression of her sexual desire associated with being humiliated. Jung counsels her and encourages her to find the source of her problems and in confronting them cure herself. Jung uses the case as a way to meet his idol Freud (Viggo Mortensen, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE), who disagrees that any analyst can cure a patient.
As the two colleagues develop a friendship, Freud sends another patient to meet with him — Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel, BLACK SWAN), an analyst who has a habit of sleeping with his patients. He certainly loves transference. Gross argues that repression is the cause of so many mental illnesses and that the only way to be truly free is to not repress your desires. Jung finds his patient very persuasive and soon his is indulging in all sorts of kinky sex with Spielrein, despite the fact that his prim wife Emma (Sarah Gadon, CHARLIE BARTLETT) is perpetually pregnant with his next child. For Jung the two relationships provide completely separate needs in his life. Spielrein is the dark and Emma is the pure.
The trio of Oscar-worthy lead performances drives this complex character study. Fassbender makes Jung a focused man who thinks of nothing other than his work. Watch how irritated he gets when his mandatory military service disrupts seeing patients. His first visit to Freud is hilarious in how he is so singularly focused that he discusses sexual cases at the family dinner table without even understanding why it's inappropriate. In some ways it reminded me of Liam Neeson's performance in KINSEY, another film about people trying to understand human sexuality.
Knightley has the flashiest role. She elicits a feeling of pain in the viewer as she juts her jaw out severely during seizures. Her character in her day would have been described as hysterical and that is the best way to describe her performance. Watch how she transforms from her disturbed state to her passion as a student of psychoanalysis. She calms and gains more control, but she doesn't change. It's heartbreaking to watch her confront Jung over their relationship and what he has and hasn't revealed to Freud, who she wishes to work with. She gives Sabina such fragile strength.
Mortensen gives a quiet, deceptively deep performance that so easily could get overshadowed by the others. Watch how he ever so slightly changes in his attitude toward Jung. At first he embraces him as an eager new disciple, but once Jung starts to challenge Freud's authority, the elder analyst starts to treat him with smug indignation. There is a very telling scene between Freud and Spielrein where he criticizes her paper for the importance she puts on religion on the psyche and then later in the conversation brings up how they are Jewish and will always be looked upon as second class citizens. Is Freud threatened by Jung's Christian background and his wealth or is it just his ideas that differ from his own?
In the end, the great irony is that Jung's story validates Freud's idea that all mental illness is tied to repressed sexuality. Jung doesn't buy it though. Gross proposes that Freud only thinks this way because he isn't getting any. For Jung and Spielrein they're hang-ups are sexual. He is a bit of a sadist and her a masochist. His guilt tears them apart and jeopardizes his work and his sanity. Jung was able to save Sabina by bringing her darkness into the light, but he refused to let her do the same for him.