A Dangerous Method

Freud vs. Jung, as told by Cronenberg; sometimes a cigar is just a cigar

A Dangerous Method

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Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Vincent Cassel, Sarah Gadon, André Hennicke, Arndt Schwering-Sohnrey, Mignon Remé. Written by Christopher Hampton, from his stage play The Talking Cure and John Kerr’s book A Most Dangerous Method.

Sigmund Freud vs. Carl Jung, as told by David Cronenberg, master of psychosexual subtext. A Dangerous Method seems like a match made in heaven, and for the most part it is, though this is far more conventional film than would be expected of the director, and the portrayal of one of the main characters is something of a distraction.

It has its pleasures, though, many of them in the portrayal of Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen) and Jung (Michael Fassbender) and their (too-brief) scenes together. After meeting in person for the first time, Freud asks Jung if he realizes how long they’ve been talking. Thirteen hours. A film relegated to that conversation would have been fascinating.

But A Dangerous Method, despite being adapted from a stage play (Christopher Hampton’s The Talking Cure), has a much larger scope, encompassing a number of years, locations, and most importantly, a third character: Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a Russian Jew who was first Jung’s patient (diagnosed with “hysteria”), then lover, and ultimately colleague.

The film follows Jung and Sabina through the course of their relationship, which is also during the time that Jung and Freud struck up a friendship. Based on actual correspondence from the primary characters (there’s no shortage of letter-reading during the film), A Dangerous Method is about nothing less than the birth of psychoanalyses, and how contrasting ideas and methods gave birth to what we know as modern-day psychology.

In a brief (but pivotal) role, Vincent Cassel appears as Otto Gross, an Austrian psychoanalyst who practices a more hedonistic lifestyle, going so far as to sleep with his patients as a form of therapy. His scenes with Jung – in which Jung should be analyzing him, but the tables are turned, and Gross ends up influencing Jung’s relationship with Spielrein – have the same kind of spark as the scenes between Jung and Freud.

For me, however, there was one major distraction: the Spielrein character, and, to a lesser extent, her portrayal by Knightley. It’s an extremely difficult role: Spielrein goes from hopeless hysteric to respected psychologist in a minimum of screen time, and we never seem to get an accurate reading on her progression until the final scenes, in which she seems to be a different person altogether.

Knightley plays Spielrein incredibly broad, with pained expressions, facial contortions, and all the stops. It’s certainly an interesting portrayal – and the depiction of “hysteria” (now recognized as a bogus diagnosis) has more to do with Cronenberg than Knightley – but it calls too much attention to itself. A thick Russian accent doesn’t help, either.

Mortensen, on the other hand, steals the show as Freud, who is rarely observed without a cigar firmly in mouth. His straight-faced response when Jung asks him about his dream is unforgettable.

A Dangerous Method looks and sounds terrific, with some wonderful screen composition and use of color by cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (who’s shot each of Cronenberg’s films dating back to Dead Ringers) to go along with gorgeous location work (the film was shot in Germany and Austria) and period detail. An excellent score by Howard Shore incorporates heavy dose of Richard Wagner, whose themes in Siegfried are discussed by Jung and Spielrein during the film.

An ending scrawl tells us the fate of the four primary characters. If there’s a failing in the overall conception of A Dangerous Method, it’s the attempt to cover too much; each of these characters deserves an entire film devoted to them.

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