Movie Review: A Dangerous Method
David Cronenberg has always been drawn to psychologically challenging material, especially when it has to do with breaking societal taboos. Flip through his filmography (Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, Crash) and you’ll see some seriously depraved stuff. He has mellowed substantially in recent years (The History of Violence, Eastern Promises), but thankfully, he still has an appetite for the kinky stuff. A Dangerous Method tells the somewhat sordid tale of the birth of psychoanalysis, but it’s fairly restrained for a Cronenberg film. No envelope pushing here, just a fascinating look at a trio of psychiatrists who laid the framework for the modern practice of psychiatry.
Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) is delivered by carriage to the doorstep of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) in 1904. She’s batshit crazy, cackling and wailing like a banshee. She also has a severe vocal tic that renders her almost incapable of communication. Jung patiently tries out the controversial method of “talking therapy” on the patient, and damned if it isn’t determined that she’s a masochist at heart. Repression and shame has caused her behavioral problems, and once she becomes aware of this, she miraculously changes into a remarkably brilliant woman (who likes to indulge in the occasional spanking, like you do). Jung develops an unethical sexual relationship with the patient, all the while acting as her mentor, as the cured Sabina is now studying psychiatry.
Meanwhile Jung holds Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) in the highest regard, and the two develop a professional relationship that later devolves into jealousy and a shared obsession for Sabina. An interesting aspect of the film is the absolute lack of moral fortitude with these early scholars. Sleeping with patients is considered “an occupational hazard”, and it is completely expected that everyone holds a mistress at bay until carnal urges necessitate an encounter. It’s so different from what we expect from our doctors today (especially psychiatrists) that it is unsettling.
I enjoyed A Dangerous Method, but I didn’t find it to be a truly great film. Knightley’s performance (while Sabina was ill) was difficult to watch. It is completely over the top, but I don’t doubt that Knightley was playing the role exactly as directed. I fault Cronenberg for not reining it in a bit. The tics are greatly exaggerated and I found these scenes embarrassing to watch.
Fassbender disappears into his role, and Jung’s character is quite tragic. Although his wife is fully aware of his indiscretions, she never cuts him loose, hence he lives a somewhat miserable existence. Mortensen plays Freud as a cigar-chomping eccentric who supports some truly bizarre theories for the times. He’s compelling, but this is Fassbender’s show.
There are a few major plot holes; Jung and Freud are shown on a boat eager and ready to descend on America, but it is never mentioned again. I felt like our screening was missing a scene or two. Even at a lean running time of under ninety minutes, the film still had some pacing issues. However, it is certainly worth a watch for its subject matter, which proves that truth can be stranger than fiction.
A Dangerous Method is rated R. Directed by David Cronenberg. Written by Christopher Hampton (screenplay) and John Kerr (book). Starring Keira Knightley, Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassel.