A Dangerous Method is David Cronenberg’s recent film concerning a fascinating triangle. The two men are analysts Sigmund Freud & Carl Jung. And then there’s Sabina Spielrein, who was both patient & lover of Jung. While there’s a domestic triangle that concerns Jung’s wife, the professional conflict between Freud and Jung is perhaps the greater conflict than the domestic one. Cronenberg & Mortensen are again wonderful together, in a film that bears repeated watching. But I am particularly interested in Shore’s work on the music for Cronenberg’s film.
The storyline of Wagner’s Ring Cycle furnishes a key chunk of subtext. Spielrein and Jung are both interested in Wagner’s Ring operas. Spielrein argues for the consummation of their forbidden love (Jung being married), seeing the incestuous behaviour in Die Walküre as a kind of model, although she could just as easily have cited Wagner’s own life choices.
While that much already can furnish a template that would encourage Shore to draw upon Wagner’s music as a kind of metaphorical backdrop for the modern story, there are several additional layers.
While both Spielrein & Freud are Jewish, Jung is Aryan. It’s no surprise, then that Shore often employs the music associated with the Niebelungen (the race of characters in the Ring most often linked to anti-semitic sentiment). Shore gives us an ostinato version for piano & orchestra of the motif as we hear it in the first act of Siegfried, largely associated with Mime the dwarf, whom Siegfried loathes. Note, I am not saying that this is what Wagner meant, so much as that Shore takes up the received association between Mime’s music and anti-semitic associations.
One of the greatest conflicts in this film is between unrestrained sexuality and bourgeois domestic bliss, a tension incidentally that echoes Wagner’s own life. And so Shore nicely captured this additional depth by utilizing a motif that appears in the Ring operas as well as in the Siegfried Idyll, a composition written as a birthday present for his wife, portraying their happy life on a mythic scale. The first time we heard this music, I was puzzled, because Jung was in the process of committing polygamy; and then I remembered that of course Wagner himself had done so: which is how he found Cosima in the first place. And so, as Jung & Spielrein blissfully lie together, Spielrein might well have seen herself as the next Cosima, who after all, found her way into Wagner’s bed as his lover, before he eventually married Cosima, allowing her to become the official guardian of the Wagnerian myth.
There is one marvellous sequence where Jung and Spielrein sit, playing Wagner for a group of listeners as if they were lab specimens. This is the one instance where Wagner isn’t just on the non-diegetic soundtrack (the imaginary space of the cinematic artefact), but for the moment, actually sharing the diegetic space with the living characters, via a Victrola. At this point just before the First World War, the music on the record is (excuse the pun) bastardized Wagner in some odd paraphrases that lend extra authenticity to the film precisely because they’re so unfaithful (whereas nowadays we live in an era of relative textual fidelity).
Most of Shore’s Wagner paraphrases are in a kind of piano-concerto format. For me this makes great sense. The piano—reducing these great orchestral passages to discreet notes on a keyboard—suggests the issues of repression & control of Freud & Jung, as well as connoting perfectly this era when Wagner (in his bourgeois parlour piano incarnations) was like a popularly sanctioned form of pornography, music about forbidden desires. In other places, the orchestra gently reconstitutes passages that are more dramatic in their original form, but are here reflected from a distance, as if in the recollections spoken in a session with a therapist, rather than lived in the here and now. Shore brings us back to the moments in Act II of Siegfried when the young hero soliloquizes on his parents, a moment that in many respects could have happened in a psychiatrist’s office.
I must see the film again. I confess I was often so busy trying to recognize the Wagner passages (there are more than what I mentioned) and find their subtextual significance, that I wasn’t always listening to the dialogue. This is a film of great richness, whose depths deserve further –if you’ll excuse the expression—analysis. While Hollywood seems to have underestimated the film (but then again I think I over-estimate Hollywood, when I think the Academy might honour a film that’s a great work of art), I am proud that at least at home in Canada, the film won Genies both for Howard Shore & Viggo Mortensen.