In 1904, the eighteen year-old Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley, "Never Let Me Go") was carried into Burgholzli hospital and diagnosed as a hysteric, but Dr. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender, "Jane Eyre," "Shame") quickly noted her education and intelligence. After corresponding about her case with the famous Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen, "The Lord of the Rings," "Eastern Promises"), Jung decided to make her a test case for 'the talking cure,' "A Dangerous Method."
Director David Cronenberg teams with screenwriter Christopher Hampton, adapting his own play “The Talking Cure," to make a companion piece to his 1988 twin gynecologist horror "Dead Ringers." That film was a speculation on a true story, just as this one is, although here the protagonists include two famous men and the mostly unknown woman who helped shape their theories. "Ringers" was foregrounded in the physical while "Method" explores the cerebral, both films feature doctors descending into mental breakdown in an arena of sex and drugs. There is even twinning of a different nature in "A Dangerous Method" where Freud pairs with Sabina in their dark-haired, brown-eyed Jewishness against the blue-eyed blond Aryans that are the Jungs.
Even when wading most deeply into contortions of human flesh, Cronenberg considers the psychological aspects (see "Crash" and more recently "Spider") and so "A Dangerous Method" continues his themes, embodied most fully in Keira Knightley's edgy performance. The actress brought a fine physicality to her role in the undervalued "Never Let Me Go" and here it's like she's dialed it up to eleven but it works. At times it appears as if she's trying to crawl out of her own mouth, as if she needs an exorcist, not a psychoanalyst, but she's riveting right down to her Europeanized Russian accent. She's the woman who vocalized the concept of transformation to Jung (the feminine in men and masculine in women) but also helped end his relationship with Freud. Jung was already questioning Freud's strict adherence to sex as the driving force behind everything while Freud was becoming uneasy with Jung's farther out ideas, like catalytic exteriorization phenomenon, a technical term for poltergeist activity. It is further implied that Freud was jealous of Jung's wealth, independence and embodiment of the Siegfried myth.
It's Fassbender's year for kinky sex (see "Shame") and here is the root of his problem with Freud. After Freud refers psychiatric protege Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel, "Eastern Promises," "Black Swan") for treatment, Jung allows himself to be seduced by the man's flagrant rejection of monogamy and the need to repress anything in order to justify his attraction to Spielrein. He begins an affair with her, indulging her masochistic fantasies, which, oddly enough, appear to have a curative effect on the woman whose problems stemmed from her overly authoritarian father's beatings (on her first memory of being beaten at the age of four - 'I liked it! It excited me.'). Jung is wracked with guilt for betraying his hugely supportive wife Emma (Sarah Gadon, "Dream House"), who is constantly shown worrying about pregnancies making her unattractive, and initially denies the affair to Freud, but once he ends it Spielrein insists he tell the truth so that she may become a patient of Freud's.
Hampton's brilliant screenplay (his play was based on John Kerr's book) is like an analysis within an analysis forming a whole school of thought. These three people and their desires, ambitions, egos, guilt and fear display the very traits they are forming their theories with, but while the sexual are the most titillating of these, there is a robust subtext of class and religious divides. Amusingly, Jung, in early fatherhood, is shown as literally having a great appetite, always eating when with Freud, the father of six, who consumes only his phallic cigars. Cronenberg gets his weird medical device in when Jung conducts a revealing word association experiment with his wife, Emma, while Sabina measures her physical responses (and hits the nail on her head with her subsequent psychological assessment). The production is beautiful, Cronenberg making the most of old Europe including some actual locations, like Burgholzli. Costume, hair and makeup, including a prosthetic nose for Mortensen, are all first rate.
Fassbender may be a little too good looking for Jung, but he does register the man's gusto, guilt and love of comfort. Mortensen is terrific as Freud, offering up all sorts of subtle hints on what made the man tick. Knightley throws herself out on a limb and remains suspended in a performance which begins in hysteria and ends in contemplation. These three make "A Dangerous Method" provocative and, yes, sexy.
David Cronenberg is not known for his historical period pieces but is known as an edgy filmmaker that travels new and different ground with every film he has made throughout his long career. Known for his horror films – “The Brood,” “The Fly” and “Dead Ringers” come to mind – I wondered how he would fare with a three-hander about the birth of modern psychiatry. This does not sound like something down Cronenberg’s alley.
However, when a master filmmaker sets his sights on a project, he owns it, and “A Dangerous Method” is no exception. His stars – Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, Vigo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud (in his third outing with the director) and Keira Knightley as patient Sabina Spielrein - are given free rein to investigate and inhabit their characters and each actor does so expertly. Knightley, in particular, takes it to the edge both physically and emotionally as the mentally troubled Sabina. (Think acting nominations for these three veterans come years end.)
Sex is central to “A Dangerous Method,” though pretty tame for the usually audacious filmmaker, with Freud naming the act as the basis for all human psychosis. Carl Jung, the father of “talking medicine” to help his patients, is both close friend and esteemed opponent of Sigmund. Throw into this mix of early psychology the very troubled Sabina, who fits both of the men’s psychiatric philosophies. As Sabina blossoms under the treatment and tutelage of Jung, she moves from being his patient to being his assistant, researcher, colleague and lover with a penchant for rough sex.
Director Cronenberg leaves it to his fine actors to do their thesping and concentrates on the period aspect of “A Dangerous Method” – costume, makeup, production and set design are given full attention. The gorgeous locations, particularly the beautiful city of Vienna, Austria, are a terrific backdrop for the film and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky lenses it all beautifully.
In this densely packed, award hungry movie-going season a film like “A Dangerous Method “ may be too cerebral for the holiday audience but, for the film buffs, it is a must see – especially for Knightley’s powerful performance. I give it a B+.
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