Awhile back I gave my students an optional extra credit assignment - write a brief paper comparing the Iliad to Troy. A few days ago, at the end of class, some students came up to me and asked if they could do another extra credit assignment: "Teacher! There is a new movie about Freud! Can we write an extra credit paper on it?" I expressed my doubts that the movie could genuinely further our understandings of Civilization and its Discontents, but I promised I'd go see it to make sure. I did check it out online, but once I saw that Keira Knightley was in it, I closed my browser - what else you do you need to know? Which means that I didn't realize it was a David Cronenberg movie until the opening credits started. Or that it is allegedly a fantastic film, one that has received quite a bit of praise from A. O. Scott at the NYTimes (I love reading his reviews, but I'm coming to realize that I rarely agree with them). Honestly? I don't get what all the fuss is about. I thought it kinda sucked.
To start with the praise, Keira Knightley is pretty fantastic as a crazy Russian lady. Her accent is consistent, her jaw juts out further than you ever thought possible when she's having fits, and boy can she take a spanking. Viggo Mortensen is practically unrecognizable as Freud - no seriously, I spent 30 minutes trying to figure out if it was him. The brown contacts and beard really threw me off. And does a pretty good job as a kind of bemused guy who is simultaneously very worried about the future of the field he is inventing. Vince Cassel is pretty awesome as a lech. Michael Fassbender is the weakest link, giving an utterly wooden performance as Jung, at turns angsty, determined, or indignant, but always dull.
Cronenberg's touch is pretty visible, but it's kind of hard to explain how. The aesthetic of the film, the way the shots were framed, the shot-reverse-shot-and-now-another-angle way of filming conversations, and the color palette were all somehow very familiar. The keen interest in the various tools and machines and restraints associated with psychiatry was unsurprising. The racy bits (which I guess should qualify as shocking, but they somehow...weren't. I don't know if that says more about me or the film. They just weren't especially thrilling or titillating moments, what can I say), same.
The problem with the movie was the story. You got the sense that the movie couldn't decide what kind of story it wanted to tell - was it the love story between Sabrina and Jung? Was it the relationship between Jung and Freud? Was it the birth of psychiatry? Was it Sabrina's cure? Because it tried to do all of those, and none of them worked out that well. As per usual, the main thing I'd complain about is the utter lack of explanation of or engagement with these peoples' actual ideas, which to my mind is obviously the most interesting thing about them. What did Freud and Jung really disagree about? What was Spielrein's intellectual contribution? She actually gets to discuss sexuality and the death drive with Freud at one point in the film, and intellectually speaking, it's definitely the most rewarding moment in the movie. We also learn at the end that she brought psychiatry to the Soviet Union, which I would LOVE to know more about. Otherwise, it's all vague general stuff. Yes, Jung wants to explore paranormal phenomenon. Ok, tell us more! And what about Freud? We get a glimpse of the ideas that will go into Moses and Monotheism, and of course we get the critique that he's obsessed with sex, but all the reflections on the discovery of consciousness and how to navigate it that A. O. Scott seems to find in the film are the ones that I desperately missed. The first half of the story was somewhat interesting, but the post-intermission stretch* was bo-ring. As it moved into its final moments, it tried to pull out the stops emotionally speaking, which really hammered in just how little I cared about the story and the characters.
*I'm realizing that Turkish cinemas do a bit of a disservice to the films they show, because an intermission gives you the opportunity to actually think about what you're watching, and it's rarely to the film's benefit.