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A Dangerous Method is a case of a film not equalling the sum of its parts. There were aspects of the film I loved (such as Viggo Mortensen’s brilliant portrayal of Freud), but the film doesn’t really amount to much, ultimately, because it doesn’t know what it’s about. Is Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud’s rivalry meant to take center stage? If so, why is there so much focus on Jung and his relationship with patient-turned-colleague Sabina Spielrein? Maybe it’s just a straight-up Jung biopic, but if so, it’s not as insightful or compelling as it should be. Such talented people (Cronenberg! Fassbender! Mortensen!) tackling such inherently juicy material have no right turning out something this limp.
The film begins is Switzerland circa 1905. A young woman, Spielrein (Keira Knightley), is given to the care of Dr. Jung (Fassbender). She screams, she laughs, she’s clearly hysterical and suffering some sort of breakdown. Jung is interested in trying a potentially groundbreaking new technique with her, psychoanalysis, which was developed in Vienna by Dr. Freud (Mortensen). It works wonders in Spielrein, who, after opening up about her deepest sexual desires to Jung, regains her grip on reality and actually starts studying psychology herself.
With the first successful psychoanalytic case study in front of him, Jung thinks it’s time to contact Freud to discuss their methods and theories. The sardonic older doctor agrees, and though he’s impressed with Jung, he’s very put-off by the younger doctor’s insistence that religion, telepathy, and/or mysticism has a place in the study of psychology. Freud lives and breathes his sexual theories, as do his cult-like followers in Vienna. This is all too much for Jung, and as he continues to explore his beliefs and theories — as well as his own sexuality through an intense affair with Spielrein — a colossal rift grows between the two doctors.
I personally found the interaction between Freud and Jung to be the film’s most compelling material. It’s certainly more subdued than Jung’s relationship with Spielrein, though both storylines were tamer than you’d expect from David Cronenberg. Spanking and masturbation would be two taboo subjects for most directors, yet it feels almost safe coming from the director who gave us The Fly and Naked Lunch.
There’s a very big difference between the film’s two biggest supporting performances. Viggo Mortensen hits it out of the park. His Freud is a cigar-chomping man among men. He rules his world and isn’t afraid to let you know it. One key interaction between Freud and Jung occurs on a ship to America. The latter opens up and shares a dream with his mentor, which then gets analyzed in a very personal way. When Freud is pressed to share one of his dreams, however, he refuses — not wanting to give his colleague the upper hand. It’s this kind of stuff that really intrigued me about the Freud character. Cronenberg and screenwriter Christopher Hampton just don’t ever let him break out of his supporting shell. A mistake, in my opinion.
The reason it’s a mistake is because Keira Knightley is just a disaster. An interesting disaster, but a disaster nonetheless. From the film’s opening moments, she goes off the rails in her hysteria. And a lot of it is just the part, but if this wailing, screaming and a hilariously awkward underbite are the best she could have done, the film’s casting director ought to have been fired.
At least she goes all out and makes Sabina interesting, which is more than can be said about Michael Fassbender’s Carl Jung. And perhaps that’s the most disappointing part of A Dangerous Method. Here’s one of the very best young actors working today, and he doesn’t have an ounce of charisma. I almost wish Cronenberg gave the Jung part to Vincent Cassel, who appears as a very twisted analyst for only a few minutes, but he leaves much more of an impression than Fassbender.
The film looks lovely and there are a few very small “Cronenberg-ian” flashes. But for the most part, it’s a very buttoned-up movie. The sets and costumes look great, and the dialogue is very deliberate. For better or worse, it feels a lot like a play (not surprising, considering the film’s origins). But none of this is enough to mask the flawed nature of the screenplay and Cronenberg’s disappointingly pedestrian direction.
A Dangerous Method
Directed by David Cronenberg
Written by Christopher Hampton
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel