A Dangerous Method ****
Directed by: David Cronenberg.
Written by: Christopher Hampton based on his play and the book by John Kerr.
Starring: Michael Fassbender (Carl Jung), Keira Knightley (Sabina Spielrein), Viggo Mortensen (Sigmund Freud), Vincent Cassel (Otto Gross), Sarah Gadon (Emma Jung).
Restrained is usually not a word one associates with David Cronenberg, but his latest film, A Dangerous Method, is just that. But that doesn’t mean that A Dangerous Method is a huge departure for Cronenberg, as the film certainly does address the same issues that have run through most of his work. Already, I’ve heard the film compared to everything in his oeuvre from Shivers to Rabid to Videodrome to Dead Ringers to Crash. Like those films, A Dangerous Method is about a conflict between the mind and the body, and about sexual repression and societal norms. Just because the outer veneer of A Dangerous Method suggests a typical costume drama, that doesn’t mean that underneath, there isn’t some Cronenbergian madness going on.
The film opens in 1904, with Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) being transported to Carl Jung’s Swiss institute. Jung has started to make a name for himself in the burgeoning field of psychoanalysis, as a protégé of Sigmund Freud, even though at this point the two have never met. Jung (Michael Fassbender) decides that Spielrein would make an excellent case study for him in trying to use Freud’s so called “talking cure”. The idea is, that instead of trying to drive the evil or illness out of the patient that doctor and patient simply talk, trying to get to the root of the patient’s problem. If the patient can understand their illness, then perhaps they can overcome it.
When Spielrein arrives, she seems, quite simply, insane. A bundle of violent energy and barely suppressed rage, she seems like a wild animal and Knightley’s performance verges on histrionics at times. Spielrein cannot control her twisted, sexual desires – is ashamed of them- mainly because she doesn’t understand them. Through the course of her therapy with Jung, she learns their root causes, and how to deal with them so she can be a productive member of society. Two years later, Jung has essentially transformed into her mentor, as she is going to school to be a psychiatrist also. Her dark sexual desires remain however, and she starts to draw Jung into them as well. She lets him know that should he ever want to, she is available to him. By this time, Jung has become even more famous, and starts to correspond with Freud, who views Jung as his heir apparent. Freud is aging, and likes Jung for several reasons – not least of which is because he is Protestant, and as such, won’t be as easily dismissed as he, and the other Jews in Vienna expounding the same ideas, have been. There is a marvelous sequence where Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Jung talk for hours on end about their ideas. They agree on a lot of things, but also in that conversation are the seeds of the disagreements that will eventually drive them apart. Freud wants psychoanalysis to remain firmly rooted in science, while Jung wants to take into a more spiritual direction. Spielrein will in effect be the focal point of two triangles in the film – the more traditional romantic triangle between Jung, herself and Jung’s button down wife once their affair gets started in earnest, and the less traditional one in terms of psychoanalytic ideas between Jung, Freud and herself.
The movie was written by Christopher Hampton, based on his own play. Its stage roots are evident, in that nearly every scene in the movie is essentially a two hander. Jung and Spielrein’s scenes have a buried sexual intensity to them. Jung and Freud’s scenes start out almost father-son like, move into a thinly veiled rivalry, and move into outright contempt. Scenes between Jung and his wife are the air of civility but contain buried jealously and resentment. There are also a few scenes between Jung and Otto Gross, his rival for the title of Freud’s heir apparent. It is Gross who expounds a theory of complete freedom – rejecting monogamy and encouraging Jung to do whatever he wants. Without Gross, Jung probably never would have crossed the line with Spielrein.
Because the movie is made up of these conversations, the performances are more important than ever before in a Cronenberg movie. Knightly comes very close to going too far over the top in her early scenes. As the movie progresses, she gets better, as she becomes an object for Freud to poke at Jung, even while she tries to remain loyal to him. Mortenson is having a blast as Freud – it is a largely comedic performance – as he wields his wit and cleverness as a weapon. Covered in makeup, Mortenson doesn’t allow that to get in the way of his performance, and for the third straight Cronenberg movie, Mortensen delivers an excellent performance. Vincent Cassell, so great in Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, makes the most of his few short scenes in this movie. He’s almost like that little devil that see sitting on the shoulders of cartoon characters, whispering evil things in Jung’s ear. Sarah Gadon has the rather thankless role of Jung’s prim and proper wife, but in her few short scenes; you realize both why Jung is committed to her, and why he may want out. At the center of the whole movie however is Michael Fassbender’s Jung, who maintains a veneer of civility and properness in every one of his scenes, even while he is suffering inner torment. The only time he lets loose at all, is in his sex scenes with Knightley. His performance reminded me of Daniel Day-Lewis’ brilliant turn in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (another film by a famous director that looks so different on the surface from his other films, but it is really a continuation of his work), where he buried his sexual appetites because of what everyone else thinks. Jung, it seems, isn’t quite as strong as Archer.
A Dangerous Method is an interesting, engrossing film from beginning to end. I don’t know what audiences will make of it – it is a cold film that keeps you at arm’s length, and never really tells you who is right and who is wrong. It allows you to figure that out for yourself. For the Cronenberg fans who have been waiting for him to return to his wilder films, they’ll have to wait a little longer at least. A Dangerous Method is Cronenberg’s most restrained film. And yet, it’s still a Cronenberg film to its very core.