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A Dangerous Method. 2011. Directed by David Cronenberg. Screenplay by Christopher Hampton, based on his play The Talking Cure.
Starring Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Gadon, & Vincent Cassel. Telefilm Canada/Ontario Media Development Corporation/Corus Entertainment/eOne Films.
Rated 14A. 99 minutes.
I’ll say it loud and proud ’till the day I die: I am one of David Cronenberg’s biggest fans.
His films are incredible slices of human life twisted around the innovations of everything from technology to media to psychology, as well as all sorts of other themes and topics. While his earlier work is dominated mostly by the physiological, over the past decade or so Cronenberg has kept his eeriness as he’s moved towards examining aspects of the mind. Cronenberg first moved slightly from body horror in 2002 with the Ralph Fiennes-starring Spider, which examined the fractured mind of the titular character through years of psychological torment. Then came A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, both taking a look at the fluid identities of dangerous men involved in the world of organized crime.
But if the second act of Cronenberg’s career has shifted focus more towards psychology then the granddaddy of them all is A Dangerous Method.
Via screenplay written by Christopher Hampton – based on his own play The Talking Cure, which is also based on the book A Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein – the audience is transported into the relationship between groundbreaking psychiatrists Drs. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, along with the presence of Sabina Spielrein, who went on to become one of the world’s first female psychoanalysts. The style Cronenberg brings here is his typically great eye for framing and an overall gift of storytelling. But more than that he takes his talents in the arena of body horror and manages to make the psychologically uneasy aspects of this story all the more affecting.
A few reviews I remember seeing when this was first released accused Knightley’s performance of being hammy, over-the-top, among other suggested negatives. There’s no way I can agree. In the initial scenes you can grasp the incredible emotional trauma of Sabina, as Knightley dives directly into this woman’s skin. It is a fearless performance from the top. Sabina was a hysteric, and that is how many of them are prone to behaving. Although her accent doesn’t always hit the perfect mark, her overall performance is solid. Her energy as an actress has always been good. Never more formidable than here.
The chemistry between Knightley and Fassbender is fiery, too. For his part, he brings Jung to the screen with an odd charm, one which slowly evaporates over the course of the film. At first he seems a proper man whose interests lie solely in psychiatry, unearthing new practices and honing old ones to modern methodologies and more modern issues/illnesses. Partway through there’s a gradual realization Jung is as repressed, if not more so in some ways, than some of the patients he treats. Through Fassbender we find Jung’s human side and also his hideous one. He seeps talent in every film in which he stars, this is no exception.
Finally, it’s the even more amazing chemistry between Fassbender and Mortensen that makes this film so engaging. Mortensen has a good look for Freud, as well as the fact he captures the air of the men well, right down to little details such as the constant cigar smoking, the pensive and animated conversation, his calm demeanour and way of speaking. He and Fassbender play well off one another – the former with a highly serious tone and set of mannerisms, the other a slightly more loose and freewheeling type. Together, as the tension rises from one conversation to the next, their performances reel us into a psychoanalytic world of ego, jealousy, competition. And their subtle touches as actors, along with the well written screenplay, gives them the ability to work without melodrama. These two together offer nothing but the best.
Jung: “Only the wounded physician can hope to heal”
Part of Jung’s resentment of Freud is that the latter seems to have no problem with sex. Maybe he’s not a ladies man either, yet he willingly dives headlong into sexuality as the root of just about every problem we as humans experience. Meanwhile, it is clear Jung had hangups, which emerged vividly in his relationship with Sabina. So Jung likely thought Freud’s preoccupation and fixation on sex was ill conceived simply because of his own desire to break free sexually, a.k.a cheat on his wife.
One major reason I love A Dangerous Method is because it takes a long, hard, raw look at people who are widely regarded as geniuses in the field of psychiatry. Of course anyone in the know realized Freud was into cocaine, as well as other bits and pieces of both his and Jung’s life. However, exposing the darkness underneath all the masterful work is something intriguing. In that way, Cronenberg further digs into the mind: the collective mind. As we try to believe doctors and other figures of such authority are often better than ourselves, we often forget they are simply human.
The conversations between Freud and Jung are wonderful, in acting and writing. Tension mounts as their opposing views bump up against one another, rubbing each other raw. Every conversation seems to get a little more anxious, each one has more attitude – often from Freud – and the relationship between these two great thinkers deteriorates, almost invisible to their own eyes as it’s happening. Then all of a sudden they’ve grown miles apart during the interim. The progression and downfall of their relationship is certainly precipitated by the affair Jung engages in with Sabina. But the inflated egos of both Freud and Jung lay the foundation for a breeding ground of contempt between them, an inescapable and unavoidable rift.
There are absolutely some flaws to this movie. The fact remains A Dangerous Method is a complex and interesting piece of cinema facilitated by the prodding mind of David Cronenberg. Without a focus on body horror, he puts a tight lens on the horrors of psychology. The dangerous method in question lays waste to the mental capacities and thought processes of Carl Jung, as it also taints Sigmund Freud and Sabina Spielrein. The famous Talking Cure is of course a great thing, one that’s given birth to what we know today as therapy, couples counselling, and so much more.
At the same time, the Talking Cure can lead to dangerous things if not taken by the reins. Someone like Jung, particularly in his affair and resulting mess involving Sabina, talked too much, and perhaps needed his own therapy while falling under the influence of first Freud, then Sabina in her own way, even Otto Gross and his ruminations on the uselessness of monogamy
This true story about the burgeoning days of modern psychiatry and psychoanalysis is a 4-star film with a trio of fabulous performances, the ultimate driving force behind its impact. Great directing, great acting, and a solid screenplay. If you have an interest in the topics at hand, check this out, but either way it is still a nice, interesting work of historical drama that gives us insight into the towering figures of Freud and Jung now that the past few decades have pulled further back the curtain on their personalities and personal lives.