Thursday 1 March 2012

Gender and Agency in A Dangerous Method

By Rachel Cohen, Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies

It can be argued that Cronenberg’s movie is doubly fascinating for film scholars, since it is not only a text that can be read from a psychoanalytic perspective, but is also a movie about psychoanalysis. Given that recent screen theory research has begun to criticise many of the key arguments in the field for their narrowly phallocentric approach, it is also interesting that this theme is itself mirrored in the film’s narrative through Jung’s criticisms of Freud’s analytic work, in which everything is always and ultimately “about sex”. I’ve chosen in this paper to focus on the themes of gender and agency that can be observed in the film: this might also enable viewers to think about some of the strengths and weaknesses of psychoanalytic film theory as a critical approach.

The arguments which have come to dominate much screen theory are feminist ones, and it is Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) that has perhaps proved most influential within this body of work. In her essay, Mulvey argues that the narrative and point-of-view of classical Hollywood cinema are inherently gendered in accordance with what she describes as the patriarchal unconscious: that is to say that dominant cinema reinscribes patriarchal conventions by privileging the male in terms of both narrative and spectacle. According to Mulvey, then, film reproduces a binary structure that mirrors the gendered power relations operative in the real social world: a structure organised around the opposition of active/male and passive/female, male looking and female to-be-looked-at-ness. Notably, perhaps, this theoretical framework is based upon an imagined (not actual) spectator, who is passively positioned in relation to the film text: a matter which can certainly be said to problematise the role of real (especially female) viewers.

Interestingly, then, A Dangerous Method can in fact be theorised quite meaningfully using this framework. This is so since, from the very outset of the film, we are offered representations in which the active-male/passive-female binary is powerfully encoded, as we see a hysterical Sabina being forcibly restrained by a team of male staff. Here, madness is coded as “feminine”: a phenomenon offered up for the scrutiny of (sane) men. Moreover, throughout the film, female desire (seen as inextricably linked to female aggression) is shown to be both destructive and threatening. Through Jung’s relationship with his wife Emma, we learn that wives and daughters - and so, by extension, the very process of female reproduction - function primarily to stifle masculine agency: indeed, Jung refers more than once to having renounced his professional ambitions because of Emma’s pregnancies. Emma even apologises to Jung for having “failed” to give him the son she imagines he so desires, believing that this is a significant causal factor in his adulterous behaviour. Meanwhile, as the nature of Sabina’s neurosis is more fully explored, we learn that she derives great erotic pleasure from being “punished” and, given that Emma knowingly suffers Jung’s infidelity throughout the movie, its female characters could be described as inherently masochistic. The masculine/feminine dichotomy is also manifest in Freud and Jung’s disparate approaches to their analytic models: whilst Jung is keen to introduce an element of “mysticism” (connoting femininity) into his work, Freud is adamant that psychoanalysis must remain “scientific” (connoting masculinity). Importantly, of course, it is this difference of sentiment that heralds the final demise of their relationship. As the film’s narrative continues, female sexuality is linked to the idea of contamination: Jung tries to break off his affair with Sabina by telling her that he has an “illness” and, later, en-route to America, Freud suggests to Jung that they are “bringing the plague” in the form of psychoanalytic practice itself. It is worth noting that themes of contamination are often central to Cronenberg’s work more generally: see, for example, The Fly (1986), Rabid (1977).

The male/female opposition is further emphasised via the film’s aesthetics, since virtually all female characters are shown dressed in white. The mise-en-scène (the elements we see within each shot) of key sequences featuring these women is also dominated by the same colour which, of course, symbolises purity, or virginal status. The men, meanwhile, wear black suits/waistcoats over white shirts, connoting, perhaps, their role in “containing” the feminine. The colour red is also significant: after Sabina loses her virginity to Jung, we see a close-up of her virginal blood on the bed’s white sheets. The film then cuts immediately to a scene in which Emma gives Jung a gift: the sailing boat that he has always wanted. The boat, importantly, has red sails; symbolic, perhaps, of his own sexual awakening, as well as a warning of the danger that is yet to come as a result of his relationship with Sabina.

Despite these observations, however, I would argue that it is perhaps the tensions between active and passive gender positions that are of particular significance in the movie. Whilst these tensions can certainly be read as “gendered” ones, they also evoke another of the key themes that underpins much of Cronenberg’s cinematic work, that is the notion of transgressing boundaries, especially those that represent “inside” and “outside”: for instance Dead Ringers (1988), Videodrome (1983), Existenz (1999). In this respect, Sabina’s madness - barely contained in her writhing body - threatens to escape and wreak havoc on those around her. These tensions become manifest in and are played out across the film along several different axes, for instance, sanity/madness; sin/purity; openings/obstructions (both corporeal and psychological); surrender/restraint; scientific/spiritual, son/father, analyst/patient, virgin/vamp: and we sense that the boundaries between all of these categories are threatened by the spectre of unrestrained femininity.

Further, whilst (as I have shown) the film can usefully be read in terms of its reinscription of patriarchal ideologies, it is also important to observe the extent to which notions of the patriarchal, the paternal, and the “father” are themselves portrayed as threatening. It is, after all, the beatings administered by Sabina’s father that trigger her neurosis (far from her madness being an inherently female attribute). Jung’s patient Odo - formerly himself a therapist - emphasises that he is afraid of his own father. The troubled relationship between Freud and Jung, meanwhile, is organised around the father/son configuration: Freud refers to Jung as his “son and heir”, whilst Jung describes Freud as his “father figure”. Significantly, of course, Freud withdraws his “paternal” support as soon as he senses that Jung is goading him to “risk his authority”, and this particular scene could also be read in psychoanalytic terms as an awakening of the Oedipal drama between the two men. The (Oedipal) shift that this signifies in their relationship is once again symbolised aesthetically in the film: which, having previously depicted Freud and Jung sharing a conventionally patriarchal position (the “head” of a family dinner table), later shows them facing one another from opposite ends of a conference table, emphasising their rivalry, both professional (their disagreement over the future of psychoanalysis) and personal (over Sabina herself). Sabina, meanwhile, comes to occupy both sides of the feminine binary, that is, virgin/vamp as the film progresses. Interestingly, towards the end of the movie, she effectively takes up a masculine subject position: reclaiming her agency by informing Jung that she was capable of damaging him far more severely than she did, but chose not to do so. Jung, meanwhile, criticises what he describes as Freud’s “passive” (feminine) model of psychoanalysis, in favour of a more active (masculine) one, indicating a similar reversal of gender roles.

Ultimately, we might like to think about the extent to which we, as real viewers - in contrast to the imagined spectator conceptualised within screen theory - are “positioned” by the film text in terms of gender and agency. Do our responses merely constitute a passive reinscription of the patriarchal unconscious envisaged by Mulvey, or are there more complex spectatorial dynamics in operation?

Rachel runs her own blog which can be found at:

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