David Cronenberg has been, for quite some time, the one we can count on to give us our freaky-deaky fix. Sex, death, love--usually all mixed together and garnished with something scary on top. This is the guy that took adult film star Marilyn Chambers, gave her a stinger under her armpit, and let her turn an entire town into zombies in Rabid. Jeff Goldblum lost fingernails and morphed into The Fly under his watch. He's shown us people who get sexually aroused at car crash scenes (Crash) and an unforgettable head explosion in Scanners. It seems odd that his recent film would be about the pioneers of modern psychoanalysis, but it actually fits right in to the pattern and makes learning about history like a guilty pleasure.
Leave it to Cronenberg to direct a script about the completely natural unnatural behavior of history's greatest minds. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) is a young doctor influenced heavily by Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson). When a young Russian woman named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) comes to his hospital with a nasty case of hysteria, he decides to use Freud's "talking cure" on her. Being incredibly intelligent and eager for progress, she responds well, thus beginning an entanglement with Jung that quickly veers into a violation of appropriate doctor-patient behavior. In the meantime Jung and Freud meet and develop a father-son relationship that, in combination with Sabina, cause intellectual friction and energy that helped create the world as we know it today.
This is a great entry into the "Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction" genre. Prior to seeing this film, I had never considered that changing how we understand the complexities of the human brain first requires cracking a few skulls (figuratively). Each figure's personal lives were compromised by their desire to delve into how and why we operate the way we do, and their interactions together are what helped them form some of their most important world-changing ideas. Cronenberg, with an adaptation of John Kerr's book from Christopher Hampton, navigates through their entanglements deliciously. Freud and Jung were always arguing about their ideologies, which eventually led to the termination of their friendship but the birth of modern analysis. Spielrein and Jung had the kind of sadomasochistic affair that is rarely (openly) associated with their era, that almost seems like both an expression of love as well as education about their capabilities and tendencies as human beings. Freud even later attributed inspiration for his theories to Spielrein as well. Talk about intertwined.
Instead of veering onto the path of sullying great figures in history, this movie shows how challenging it is to identify behaviors in people that you also have. These doctors had the tools, talent, and passion to press through their instincts and give things like ego a name. It didn't make theirs disappear, of course, but without it, we would live in an entirely different world. Cronenberg continues being fascinating as a director showing you things you weren't sure you wanted to see but will not soon forget.