by Tony Dayoub
On the face of it, David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, based on the play "The Talking Cure" by Christopher Hampton, seems like the perfect vehicle for the director's cerebral approach. In his films, Cronenberg is often accused of a detached, almost clinical, method of eliciting drama from circumstances in which the body turns on itself, i.e., The Brood, The Fly, and even less fantastic stories like that of Dead Ringers. So, at first glance, this story depicting the nearly filial relationship between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and his protege, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and its eventual rupture over their contrasting approaches to mental illness, seems like the perfect marriage of artist and material.
A Dangerous Method hinges on the pivotal character of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a young Russian woman committed by her father to Jung's care. Jung decides Spielrein, who shows a natural inclination towards becoming an analyst herself, is the perfect candidate on which to practice Freud's controversial "talking cure," psychoanalysis, a treatment that even the radical Freud has been reluctant to implement. Jung seeks Freud's help, and becomes one of his disciples for a brief time. Sabina responds well to the treatment, in many ways proving that the root cause of her issues is a sexual deviance, just as Freud proposes in his theory. But Spielrein and the married Jung grow closer, resulting in an affair and their growing skepticism that Freud's answer is the only one. Jung and Spielrein begin formulating their own theory based on a "collective unconscious." Its metaphysical elements finally alienate Freud, at heart a scientific conservative.
Cronenberg deftly layers A Dangerous Method with complex sociopolitical explanations explaining the difficult paternal relationship Freud has with Jung, and the ways Jung rebels against it. For example, when the two board an ocean liner on a lecture tour to America, class distinctions become apparent when Freud realizes Jung booked a private stateroom for himself while he must share a lower cabin with one of his assistants. Jung is ignorant that this incident might be the underlying reason Freud snidely refuses to share one of his dreams with him after Jung has done the same. "If I share it with you," Freud says, "I might lose my authority." There is also the matter of the growing climate of anti-semitism in early 20th-Century Europe, which manifests itself in different ways between the three lead characters. Freud is hyperconscious of the fact that he is Jewish, and that much of the criticism his theories have received is a disguised form of bigotry. The Aryan Jung is oblivious to that and the fact that Spielrein, and subsequent women he conducts affairs with, are Jewish women which, being patients of his, are in a position subservient to him. The rupture between Jung and Freud, and Jung's abrupt break-up with Spielrein, could easily be reframed as that of the aristocratic Jung retreating from very public relationships with two Jews in an era where German nationalism was beginning to take root.
A Dangerous Method's big drawback is the twitchy performance by Keira Knightley, who takes top billing here. Sure, when we initially meet Sabina, she experiences a paroxysm of face-contorting seizures to be expected from a raving lunatic. But couple that with the rough Russian accent, and Knightley's inability to deliver her dialogue in said accent without furrowing her brow as if she's concentrating really, really hard on what she's doing, and it becomes a distraction. A scene-deflating distraction. Anytime she appears onscreen, you begin to brace yourself and hope you can look past her overwrought histrionics. Even erotic scenes between Fassbender and Knightley, two not unattractive actors who inspire ardor in many moviegoers, feel rehearsed and badly executed. And it's not the fault of Cronenberg, who was able to wring even a twisted eroticism out of his perverse sex scenes in Crash (1996). No, while Fassbender and Mortensen are eloquently playing out Cronenbergian scenes of dysfunction, Knightley seems to be appealing to the fans of what I like to call her "heaving-bosom" romances like Atonement and Pride and Prejudice.
Still, despite my mixed feelings, A Dangerous Method has a lot worth recommending. The final shot of the film, pictured above, is so reminiscent of The Godfather Part II, for reasons I won't get into here, that it struck me how similar this movie is to Coppola's series from a father-son angle. While I'm sure it's not intentional, there is an element of metaphorical patricide in A Dangerous Method in which Jung consolidates more power/prestige than his father figure by movie's end. But as we know, time will favor Freud's theories over Jung's. One could posit that the long-lived Jung might wonder, as Michael Corleone did of his father, why Freud was the one that ended up so loved.
A Dangerous Method is playing at the 49th New York Film Festival tonight, at 6 pm and 8:30 pm, at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023. For more ticket information go online here, or call (212) 721-6500
It opens in New York and Los Angeles November 23rd.