Two famous historic personages, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), are having dinner together at the older man's home, in order to discuss various problems of the burgeoning science of psychoanalysis — such as whether or not to use the word 'libido' in public. But the arrangement of their bodies is odd and cramped — Freud and Jung are sitting next to rather than opposite each other, their well-clothed arms almost rubbing together — and the delivery of their conversation awkward. At a certain point, Freud remarks, 'By the way, don't feel you have to restrain yourself here. My family are all veterans of the most unsuitable topics of mealtime conversation'.
Cued by this reference to something beyond the realm of theory — as well as, literally, something beyond the cramped frame he (and we) have so far inhabited — Jung looks up, a little quizzically. Cut to his POV shot, which takes the form of a gentle pan from one side of the table — along which four of Freud's children and his wife (at the opposite end) are seated — to the other, which reveals four further progeny, plus a servant. Cut back to the first camera position on Freud and Jung: the latter concludes his surveying of his surroundings, puts his head down once more, and continues on with his discourse...
It is a humorous vignette about everyday life in the Freud family home — a place of evident formality and rituals, but also a venue for free discussion of 'unsavoury' subjects. It is even structured like a gag, with a visual punch-line that takes the form of what filmmakers call a reveal — those nine intent eavesdroppers who were off-screen in the first shot, with no immediate sign that they were present.
The film is David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method (2011). As a story of the early years of psychoanalysis — when its practice was not yet institutionalised, and all methods for probing the psyche were matters of trial and error — it is also about the formation of a very particular, real-life, historical example of mise en scène: the arrangement of patient and analyst during a psychoanalytic session, with the former lying down, supine, turned away from the eyes of the latter, who is (generally) seated and taking notes.
Today, we tend to think of this 'on the couch' arrangement as a 'classically' Freudian set-up. In Cronenberg's film, however — and this is what it dramatises in the difficult professional and personal relationship between Jung and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) — this set-up is still in the process of finding its form, which implies the testing and transgression of its possible limits. The 'critical distance' between analyst and patient is thus in flux and the protocols of transference and counter-transference do not yet follow a tidy script. That is why, for Cronenberg and writer Christopher Hampton, the psychoanalytic method is 'dangerous' — not merely because it probes the energies of the unconscious, but because it unleashes them, uncontrollably, bringing into question every rational, ordered ritual designed to contain and direct them.
The seating arrangement at a middle-class family's dinner table, the respective positions of doctor and patient in an analytic session... These situations, put into mirror-relation by A Dangerous Method, are at once inherently cinematic and inescapably social. It is a social mise en scène: through some clever twist of filmic presentation, we suddenly become aware of the lineaments of a civilised code of arrangement — an example of art's celebrated capacity to defamiliarise something we had previously taken for granted, to reveal what was not so obvious in what we took to be completely natural.
As always in Cronenberg, a small, seemingly minor detail mirrors larger structures in the film as a whole: for what is the character of Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) about, if not the anarchic shattering of every polite mise en scène (sexual, political, moral...) in his vicinity?
Adapted from Adrian Martin's forthcoming book Mise en scène and Film Style: From Classical Narrative to New Media Art (Palgrave, 2014).