A Dangerous Method (2011)
“Bloom had an idea. Now the idea has him.” – Christopher Ricks
Like most films from Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris has philosophy on its mind. There’s an idea at the heart of the film—not quite a moral, not quite a lesson, not quite a thesis—about how human beings relate to a past that they never directly encountered. The film has some things to say and thoughts to explore apart from the drama of its characters.
The film’s parade of 1920s artists and intellectuals, however, for the most part aren’t there to offer various perspectives on Allen’s concern. They’re there to entertain, to provide a knowing wink to an erudite audience, a series of aha! moments at the appearance of another famous name. The film has a multi-faceted perspective enriching its narrative; its characters have identities they espouse on cue.
Midnight in Paris has good reasons to keep its philosophy separate from its men and women of ideas, and I point this out not to put it down. Its approach makes sense for its aims. If Allen, however, whose comfort with and valuing of philosophy aren’t in question, treads carefully in staging thought, then it suggests challenges not easily overcome.
Films have trouble with depicting the interaction of complex ideas, if for no other reason than because a compressed medium has less space to convey them. Film’s attachment to human faces and personalities also encourages the union of ideas and their representatives. Typically, our understanding of where theories and intellectual developments come from, and what their implications are, will be subservient to an understanding of the human being in a way that robs the ideas of their nuance. Something like A Beautiful Mind, for that reason, will struggle to depict the fraught, exciting pull of even the most engaging subject matter, for the “idea” will become contiguous with the ups and downs of a given person’s life. There’s a hint of moralism to the success and traction of a line of thinking, and this tends to push a viewer’s considerations toward a more emotional plane.
Exploring ideas will also often require a heavy amount of dialogue, which can cut against the intrinsic strengths of the medium. Much of the criticism of the otherwise-delightful Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, certainly a film not shying away from ideas, centers on how a steady stream of beautiful and fascinating language does not make for something that works quite right as a film. Talking at length, however, is often the best if not the only way to explore ideas in a film. In that vein, you often see some of the most intellectually engaging subjects presented in Tarantino scripts, where a lengthy discourse on something or another finds far more careful and loving treatment than most other screenwriters appear capable of providing. Here, however, the unfolding of an idea is there for aesthetic purposes, often fascinating, at its worst serving as indulgent decoration, yet in either case there not for its own merit but because it serves a given dramatic end. What’s being said matters because of the act of saying, the situation we’re encountering, and the style of its presentation, far more than its intrinsic content. And if there’s reason to think one line of thought could be swapped out easily with another, it’s a sure sign that a film isn’t “about” that subject so much as it’s using it to achieve something else.
For all the resulting rarity of seeing a film really be about an “idea,” and how welcome it is to see, the interplay of ideas poses a far greater difficulty for a filmmaker. And here, too, shortcuts are often the most easy solution. Even in films where there are two or more independent philosophies or arguments being explored as a part of the content, rather than suggested, philosophies become embodied by their on-screen representatives, the characters serving as avatars. Films that take the time to develop two independent philosophies or strategies will, in the clash of those perspectives, inevitably invite a moralistic treatment. How a film depicts the fate and fortune of the followers of one path or the other will directly stand in for its treatment of whatever they embody. Even where the conversation retains subtlety, the oversimplification of the complexities of thought becomes unavoidable.
This vexed background is why A Dangerous Method, a low-key drama about Carl Jung, Sabina Spielrein, and Sigmund Freud, may be the most exciting film of the past year. It attempts to portray at least three robust sets of ideas in a manner relating to but not interchangeable with the lives of the characters who hold them. This kind of thing just isn’t done all that often, and it’s very difficult to pull off. The appeal of its novelty and the fascination of the high-wire act ensure a compelling viewing, even if the film were a miserable failure.
Another enjoyable aspect of its ambition is that it does not appear to be any sort of accident. Of the year’s films it most closely recalls Margin Call, with a small cast, a consistent reliance on two-person scenes, dialogue as action, and the suggestion of great consequences for the world yoked to the drama of a small set of people. Yet where Margin Call cleverly avoided engaging with the specifics of the movie’s subject matter, David Cronenberg appears to have made every effort to bring his grasp of the source material to the screen with the minimal possible dilution. The result is a film that feels acutely aware of the difficulty of what its sets out to do and convey, and rather than the beautiful, streamlined character of Margin Call it instead preserves a far less decisive complexity.
Cronenberg understands that with an uphill charge there’s no room to hesitate. From the start there’s the utmost possible emphasis on what it is the characters are doing with all their furious theorizing. Only minutes in, we’re watching a pure, undiluted early-twentieth century therapy session, complete with a sympathetic woman going into painful convulsions as she shares erotic fantasies she feels ashamed of, thoughts she’s likely never before articulated. Bracing and deeply uncomfortable, the film does not shy away from the upshot of what it’s making such a fuss about, the process that will be at the center of the push-and-pull of its various players. The ideas encountered will have their value tested in the ways they help human beings, and in how adequately they explain human experience.
What’s most welcome about the follow-through beyond this point is how the film relentlessly resists becoming about “an idea,” or supplying a structure that carries with it the force of a philosophical argument or exploration. The movie contents itself instead with depicting the process of thinking, with dramatizing how ideas develop. When Spielrein strains to articulate notions that seem fundamental to her, when Jung veers between clinical precision and the emotive force of anecdote, when Freud openly shuts down avenues of exploration for the overt purpose of political efficacy, the film brings forth a sense of the milieu of “professional” thought that feels entirely different from what a film typically provides. While the ideas being advocated are on their own so interesting that to watch the characters become mouthpieces might not have meant artistic failure, there’s also an admirable effort to avoid that path. These are real people who hold fervent beliefs, rather than screenplay formulas, and the characters stand on equal footing with what they propose. The film pays as much respect to what’s said as to what that tells us about the speaker.
This is the most exciting in the conversations where Freud and Jung turn their analytical methods upon each other, complete with a rigorous treatment of the ethnic and political currents of the time. The first conversation we see between them is respectful, collegiate, a meeting of two powerful minds, a scene about mutual honesty that also applies their ideas in practice. They shift, without artifice, between conversation and analysis, curiously more professional when they’re sharing the deeply personal content of their dreams, and more intimate when discussing their work as an abstraction.
When this rapport degrades over the course of the film, threatened by the chasm between Jung’s intellectual convictions about their subjects and Freud’s practical aspirations for their field, it also threatens the film’s commitment to complexity. The two increasingly resort to reducing the ideas of the other by explaining them as symptomatic of some personal failing, and rob what was once a beautiful, crackling ferment of ideas of its legitimacy, treating philosophies as proxies for people rather than something worthy of independent respect. The characters at their low point come to demonstrate how hollowed-out and dissatisfying a clash of ideas becomes when explained solely through personal conflict.
Using the approach of lesser films as a stand-in for showing the characters at their worst, A Dangerous Method also shows care with Spielrein’s subsequent efforts to mediate, recognizing another kind of danger posed by a dramatic narrative. Keeping the characters too closely together, or finding a facile convergence for the characters’ respective viewpoints, would similarly threaten to reduce thought from its complexity, making “ideas” into an “answer,” and in doing so defeat the ambiguous gains so carefully attained. Even Spielrein herself spends equal time attempting to bring together as she does bringing forth her own, independent perspective on psychoanalysis.
Appropriately, the character with the most understanding of being pinned down makes the most forceful argument for seeking to advance the forward push of thought from various angles, rather than agreeing on one means of transport. And by its close A Dangerous Method avoids too easy an accommodation. When the credits start, the many ways of thinking thus far presented have all made it to the end alive, eluding the easy takeaway or the triumph of one set of answers over another.
Nothing less would fit the reality of Europe’s ensuing intellectual history, and, truth be told, films may never be able to stage thought with the depth and rigor of that era’s novels of ideas. Scale may not allow for it. Yet in telling a story about thinking, and in so beautifully depicting people who fiercely advocate for where that thinking leads, it’s to the film’s immense credit that its characters aren’t alone in taking offense at the usual answers. The ideas play out without what so often weighs them down, and the results take flight before your eyes.