2011 // Canada // David Cronenberg // November 11, 2011 // Theatrical Projection (Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema)
For a film that ostensibly concerns itself with the relationship between pioneering psychiatrists Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), A Dangerous Method offers little insight into the ways in which these men transformed one another, personally and professionally. That isn't so much a criticism as an observation that that while film is quite invested in charting the emotional topography between the two men, each is hunkered down in a bunker constructed of their particular intellectual and emotional idiosyncrasies. Much is made of their contrasts: Swiss and Austrian, Gentile and Jew, young and old. Director David Cronenberg and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (who adapted the film from his own stage play, The Talking Cure, which is in turn based on David Kerr's book A Most Dangerous Method) don't allow either man to change much over the course of the film, particularly Freud, who is more professionally settled, more risk-averse, and deeply entrenched in the correctness of his theories. (There is a suggestion that if the pair had been closer contemporaries, their professional dynamic would have been vastly different.) The film presents both men as ahead-of-their-time giants, each naturally attracted to flame of the other's intellect, and each quietly harboring a remarkably liberated worldview. The story of A Dangerous Method is in large part about how these men went from enthusiastic professional colleagues with deep, mutual admiration—Freud even comments at one point that Jung is his de facto successor—to frosty rivals who barely speak to one another.
It is the film's third primary character who is granted a genuine arc. Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) is a Russian Jewess with severe mental scars, but who nonetheless has ambitions to become a psychiatrist herself. When the film opens, Spielrein is shown to be barely functional, suffering from debilitating psycho-sexual fits elicited by feelings of humiliation and other stimuli. She is brought into Jung's care at his hospital in Zurich, and over the course of the film's eight or so years, she undergoes a transformation from psychic cripple to one of the first female psychoanalysts in the world. Spielrein's case serves as a validation of Jung's ambitions to actually cure patients of their unresolved psychological ailments, but the film posits a far more pivotal role for the woman in this erotic-medical-professional triangle. As Jung dryly observes, Spielrein is “something of a catalyst” on those around her. Her presence (and her nascent psychiatric theories) open up Jung to repressed sexual urges of his own, and before long the two are engaged in an intense, sadomasochistic-flavored affair. Ultimately, the acrid aftermath of Jung and Speilrein's relationship reverberates through the psychoanalytical community, and--in perhaps the film's most fictional leap--splits open the divisions between Jung and Freud that had already been forming. There is a quiet suggestion, through all of this academic turmoil, that Jung and Speilrein would have been an excellent match, but that circumstances (and Jung's cowardice and self-righteousness) precluded a future for the couple. The film keeps this romantic tragedy element admirably understated without muting it entirely, such that when Jung admits late in the film that his adoration for Speilrein will never diminish, it's a genuinely affecting moment.
Like Cronengberg's other post-Spider films, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, there's a rigorous realism to A Dangerous Method, but not necessarily a discordance with the director's other work. Going all the way back to Shivers, Cronenberg has long had a fascination with individuals who plunge headlong into perilous physical, psychological, and sexual realms. While his latest film is in many ways his most staid and accessible, there's an undeniable thrill in seeing some of his favored themes brought to the forefront and discussed openly by historical figures. Even in a film that consists mostly of jargon-laden conversations and letter-writing, Cronenberg still finds those moments that speak to his perennial fascination with body and machine. These include Spielrein's absent-minded fingering of her virginal bloodstain on a sheet; the pointed (yet restrained) presence of Freud's cigar, with its lengthening ash and damp, chewed end; and the tender way that the film lingers on Jung's wetting of his wife's hands before hooking her to a kind of Edwardian polygraph. Spielrein herself becomes a kind of vessel for the distinguishing “Cronenbergian” deformations of the flesh and mind, through both her grotesque physical contortions and her bizarre sexual confessions. Indeed, one of the film's creepiest moments involves Knightley's description of a wet, questing “mollusc” that she recalls visiting her in her sleep. Both Fassbender and Mortensen do suitable work with their relatively static roles, but the film really belongs to Knightley (and isn't that a suprise). Her madness-induced paroxysms early in the film are so over-the-top that they're almost laughable, but once Speilrein begins to emerge from her shell, Knightley truly shines. She does a stunning job of holding on to a remnant of Spielrein's queasy, unhinged quality, gradually tamping it down as the film's years roll on without ever obliterating it entirely. It's an astounding illusion to watch.