Film review: A Dangerous Method
Though never nearly as strange as the work he’s best known for, David Cronenberg’s latest, about Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, is laced with weirdness, courtesy of a trio of strong performances, finds Alistair Harkness
It’s hard to imagine a director more suitably placed to make a film about the birth of psychoanalysis than David Cronenberg. His body horror films ooze so much sexualised malice they’re practically crying out for Freudian analysis. Provocative efforts such as Crash and Dead Ringers, meanwhile, approach potentially prurient material with the cold, intellectual curiosity of a clinician. What they all tend to have in common is a perpetual two-way battle between the body and the mind, with the latter’s often futile efforts to control the former a constant source of tension and crisis. That’s certainly the case with A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg’s coolly cerebral exploration of the awkward master-pupil relationship between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). It’s a relationship that was soured in part by their interactions with a patient-turned-doctor whose transformation from disturbed basket-case to respected colleague helped crystallise their ideas about “the talking cure” that would go on to infect every aspect of 20th-century life.
That patient is Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a psychologically troubled, masochistic hysteric. As the film opens in late 1904, she’s being transported to the Burghölzli Clinic on the outskirts of Zurich to be treated by Jung. In the midst of a fit fuelled by deep-rooted, sexually charged feelings of humiliation, she’s like a wild animal desperately trying to escape a trap and Knightley – as committed as she’s ever been – plays her as such. All flailing limbs and banshee howls, she contorts herself into weird, disturbing shapes, jutting her chin forward so much it’s as if her head is trying to separate itself from the body her character can’t control.
It’s an intentionally histrionic performance and Knightley will likely incur much sniggering for its perceived theatricality. That’s too bad, because while there is undoubtedly something a little too actorly about it, what she’s doing is what actors in Cronenberg’s horror films always do, just without the aid of prosthetics to legitimize how barmy the body’s baser instincts can make one look. Indeed, the film is essentially The Fly in reverse: its first 15 minutes or so plunge us into a world in which the protagonist has no control, then proceeds to detail how experimental scientific thinking not only helps her bring her condition under-control but makes her a stronger person.
Sabina starts to get better at first thanks to the work of Jung, who has been looking for a test subject who will not only allow him to put into practice Freud’s pioneering work in the field of “psyche-analysis”, but also provide him with an opportunity to develop his own theories. Those theories have a strain of mysticism running through them that his mentor abhors, but he doesn’t have the confidence or the wherewithal to properly assert himself. Instead he’s plagued by insecurities and remains perpetually worried about his mind being seduced by other people’s ideas. He’s also frustrated by his obligation to his wife, whose emasculating wealth combines with his own genteel cowardice to make him conform to a moral ideal that he’s already rejected on some level.
That he’s increasingly drawn towards Sabina only brings this to a head. Increasingly in tune with her body and her mind, Sabina’s perceptive nature and emerging intelligence embolden Jung, who, with the encouragement of a suppress-nothing doctor called Otto Gross (a patient and disciple of Freud’s played with scene-stealing charisma by Vincent Cassel), transgresses ethical lines and engages in a somewhat kinky sexual relationship with Sabina. This being a Cronenberg film, such scenes are shot with a careful mix of clinical detachment and erotic tension; as a result they barely stand out amid the intellectual stimulation offered by the rest of the film.
That stimulation comes out most forcefully in the scenes between Freud and Jung. Christopher Hampton’s script (which he adapted from his own play The Talking Cure and John Kerr’s book, A Most Dangerous Method) isn’t scared of bombarding us with wonderfully erudite exchanges between these two men. Of course, it helps that both Fassbender and Mortensen – whose playful chomping on a cigar feels like the closest Cronenberg is going to get to a sustained visual joke – make their verbal jousting so fascinating to watch. Both are good at lacing their courteous clinical talk with coded barbs that sow the seeds for their eventual enmity. Cronenberg also uses their exchanges to infuse the film with portentous talk about Freud’s and Sabine’s Jewish heritage, something that sets up a horribly ironic coda that reinforces just how inadequate even their work would be when faced with the collective madness of war. It’s a subtly devastating conclusion, though the film itself, while good, is not nearly as satisfying as the ones in which the director allows his instincts to run wild. Freud might have had something to say about that.
A Dangerous Mind: Directed by David Cronenberg and starring Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen and Keira Knightley.
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