A film review by Craig J. Koban January 16, 2011
A DANGEROUS METHOD
2011, R, 99 mins.
2011, R, 99 mins.
Freud: Viggo Mortensen / Jung: Michael Fassbender / Sabina:
Keira Knightley / Emma: Sarah Gadon / Otto Goss: Vincent
David Cronenberg's endlessly captivating A DANGEROUS METHOD provides a portal into the past and gives viewers an intimate glimpse into the two preeminent psychiatric minds of the last 100-plus years.
dramatic speculation and historical fact, Cronenberg collaborates with Oscar winning
screenwriter Christopher Hampton (DANGEROUS LIAISONS and ATONEMENT)
to adapt his own 2002 play (THE TALKING CURE) into a shrewd and
patiently observant chronicle of the fathers of modern psychoanalysis,
Sigmund Feud and Carl Jung, while also spinning an illicit tale of
Jung’s own tawdry love affair with one of his own patients, Sabina
Spielrein. What emerges is an
deeply intriguing period drama that highlights not only a clash of
high intellectual egos, but also the romantic tragedy of Jung's affair
that he had difficulty coming clean about, much to his elder mentor’s
A DANGEROUS METHOD
covers nearly a decade in the lives of the players, traversing from 1904
and concluding itself just before the outbreak of the Great War.
Although it may appear that Freud (Viggo Mortensen, his third
collaboration with Cronenberg after A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and
EASTERN PROMISES) will the primary focus of interest here, it’s actually
Jung’s (Michael Fassbender) story and told largely from his prerogative.
The film flings viewers right
into the moment where a Russian woman, Spielrein (Kiera Knightley) arrives
at Jung’s clinic in Zurich in 1904.
She is a manically unstable woman prone to wild and unpredictable
outbursts. Jung takes her in
and begins his radical “talking therapy” on her, but the more time he
spends with his deeply deranged and dysfunctional woman the more he begins
to see that her disorder may have something to do with the fact that any
type of physical punishment perpetrated on her heightens her sexual arousal. She is ravaged by guilt about these desires, but she
Paging Dr. Freud.
Jung, of course,
is immediately intoxicated with his new patient, which he shares with his
friend, professional colleague, and mentor, Freud, who always seems to
have a Svengali-like grip over his young disciple.
Freud constantly preaches to Jung to utilize only the rational and
just form of psychoanalysis with his patients, but Jung grows increasingly
despondent with his teachings, wanting to use different and potentially
more radical forms of therapy. As
Jung sets his own path of healing for Spielrein his obsession with her more twisted sexual proclivities
increases; he begins to fall in love with her and
soon their relationship goes from patient-doctor to mutual lovers.
Jung realizes that his personal and professional life hang in the
balance, but breaking off his affair with Spielrein proves to be much more
complex than even he imagines. Exacerbating
the entire situation is that Jung is keeping everything away from Freud, who
eventually finds himself caught in the middle of it all.
Cronenberg’s past films have concerned themselves with bodily and mental
dysfunction whereas others have dealt with the oftentimes-sickening sexual
appetites of his characters.
A DANGEROUS METHOD is definitely more restrained from his other
work, but there is still plenty of low-key kinky eroticism here on display
as he explores the dark inner frailties of both Jung and Spielrein.
The film deals with themes of sexual repression and how this may or
may not have a link to unhealthy mental states.
The fact that this Cronenberg film does not have his typical
penchant for graphic violence and the outward physical transformations
of his characters is noteworthy: his reigned-in, less-is-more approach to
the material here helps ground viewers in the central character dynamics
and how they all deal with their own inherent insecurities and anxieties.
It’s easy to be
taken in with the seediness of the Jung/Spielrein affair in the film, but
the other troubled relationship between Jung and Freud is arguably more
captivating and fascinatingly complex.
Freud is shown as a sort of grandfatherly figure of wisdom, verbal
charm, outward gentleness and generosity, but he’s inwardly a
dispassionate man of science that wants to control all those around him.
Jung, on the other hand, has interests beyond the standard dogma of
psychoanalysis and yearns to find alternative modes of therapy, which
frustrates the staunch pragmatist in Freud.
Then there is the inseparable gap between both men that is created
because of Jung’s affair and his reluctance to admit it to Freud, which
causes further shockwaves in their relationship.
Their one-on-one vocal battles of wits are the film’s highlights.
resoundingly strong triumvirate of Mortensen, Fassbender, and Knightley,
the film would sink. Knightley’s
initial performance hysterics (largely made up shrieking, twitching,
contorting her body, and so on) is a bit tough to get adjusted to at
first, but as the film settles down so does her work as she creates a
thoroughly compelling portrait of a multi-faceted woman that has hopes and
aspirations beyond her initial psychosis; using Jung and Freud, to a
degree, seems justifiable to her as part of her end game. Knightley has a tricky task of going from a woman of hostile outward intensity
to one that begins to mentally heal and then is thrust into new quandaries
that hold her back. Yes, her Russian accent may be spotty at times, but her complete
immersion into her character is laudable.
Then we have the
meeting of the minds as played by the great Fassbender and Mortensen, the
latter who masterfully shows Freud as a man restricted and submerged
within his own views and opinions. Mortensen
also captures his simple authoritative charisma and, at times, his
affinity for dry humor. Fassbander
has the tougher assignment, though, as the actor – more typically known
for his magnetic on-screen bravado and smoldering intensity – has to
somehow restrain himself within Jung’s tight-collared and recessively
aristocratic world that both professionally and personally sustains and
holds him back. It’s sort
of thankless that both Fassbender and Mortensen have to credibly inhabit
such revered titans of intellectual merit while making these characters
wholly their own.
A DANGEROUS METHOD may be Cronenberg’s least visually flashy film (it’s like a Merchant-Ivory period drama in design and implementation, but with a bit more emotional sizzle and carnal sensuality), but he and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky nonetheless create a serenely beautiful evocation of the interior and exterior lives of these turn-of-the-Century personas. This may be Cronenberg at his most reserved and modulated, but his lack of flashy and ostentatious artifice here lends to his portrayal of the character's inwardly damaged psyches. Just look at the film’s final shot, a deeply focused and contained image of Jung’s tormented face as he struggles to find ways of dealing with all of his nagging past indiscretions. He knows at this moment, for lack of a better phrase, that he’s royally screwed.
Maybe Freud would