How can a movie still be addictive, compelling and stimulating without explosions or chases? In “A Dangerous Method,” David Cronenberg brings his audience to the dawn of the 20th century with ease, telling us the riveting story of the budding relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), the birth of psychoanalysis and the complication of both by the beautiful Russian Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley).
The film opens in 1902. Spielrein is in absolute hysterics as a stagecoach of stoic men wrestle with her, racing to deliver her to Jung’s hospital for treatment. With the support and encouragement of his loving wife, Emma (Sarah Gadon), Jung attempts to treat Spielrein using Freud’s ideas of psychoanalysis.
He calls the idea “the talking cure,” a reference to the 2002 play by Christopher Hampton, from which the screenplay for “A Dangerous Method” is adapted.
Again, with the support of his wife, Jung travels to Austria two years later to finally meet Freud and discuss his work, especially as it relates to Spielrein. Freud is relaxed and assured in his position, likening himself to Columbus.
“Like him,” he says, “I am in the dark. All I know is I’ve set foot on the shore, and that the country is there.” He pushes Jung to accept his views. After all, he needs a protégé to push psychoanalysis forward after he is gone.
In the eccentric performance of a manic, Knightley may seem a little ridiculous, but especially as she starts to make improvements on her condition, it’s clear that her total commitment to the role of the mad Russian is one of the most fascinating and powerful aspects of the movie.
As Spielrein begins to gain freedom over her sexual disorder, Jung pulls some connections, getting her into the local university and on the path to becoming a psychiatrist. A bond forms over time, and a more stable Spielrein becomes just as pivotal a role, as well as a skilled, interesting conversationalist to match Jung and Freud.
But when Jung tells Spielrein that Freud is so persuasive that he makes those around him want to abandon their own ideas for his, when he laments Freud’s obsessive insistence on analyzing every issue as one of sexuality, we feel the tension of the failing bond between mentee and what Jung describes as his “father figure.”
When Spielrein finally seduces Jung into an affair of rough, violent, passionate sex (expressed with tasteful, yet tantalizing camera work) and he must decide between the love for his loyal wife and mother of his children and the love for his mistress, our stomachs feel the knots in Jung’s stomach. The rich development of the characters in the film leave its audience desperately invested in their drama.
Fassbender and Mortenson are so deeply in character that it’s impossible not to be captivated. The dialogue between characters is quick, engaging and natural.
“A Dangerous Method” is essentially a series of scenes of brilliant people talking to each other in different rooms, but it’s for better, not for worse. Sharp wit and wry one-liners delivered with perfect timing aid the development of the characters, as well as the historical account of a dry field — entertaining, hilarious, devastating and juicy.
“A Dangerous Method” may be a character story, but it still raises the quintessential questions between Freudian and Jungian psychology. Freud is content with opening the door and showing his patients the nature of their illness.
He may be terrified of anything outside the “vigorously scientific method,” regarding anything else as “professional suicide,” but when Jung is no longer content with his mentor’s mantra, “whatever you do, give up any idea of trying to cure them,” he strives for a way to help his patients. The question is whether or not he will sicken himself on the way.
Jung has an answer, “only the wounded physician can heal.”Contact Allen Duncan.