Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung
Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein
Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud
Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross
Sarah Gadon as Emma Jung
A story about repressed psychologists is probably one of the great clichés of modern storytelling. I imagine it took maybe a month or two after psychoanalysis became well known before the first story along those lines was published. And no one ever accused writers of meeting a cliché they didn’t like, so naturally it has stayed with us.
Not that indulging a cliché is the end of the world. Within a talented and imaginative filmmaker’s hands new life can be breathed into even the oldest of clichés and David Cronenberg is definitely a talented filmmaker, albeit one with clichés of his own. Particularly regarding sex and repression. Which makes “A Dangerous Method” perfect fodder for him.
Though young, it was obvious to many that Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) was a talented psychologist who would likely one day succeed the august Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) as the head of the burgeoning psychoanalytical movement. He is faced with one of the greatest challenges of his career and his life when an intelligent but disturbed young woman (Keira Knightley) is brought to his clinic for treatment.
The story of the breakdown between Freud and Jung and what it meant for psychology is too potent for writers of the subject to ignore and playwright/screenwriter Christopher Hampton (“Dangerous Liasons”) is no exception. It’s a story not just of a personal breach but of a severe ideological parting of the ways between the two titans of psychology.
And though he doesn’t realize it, that breach makes its first appearance in the form of Sabina Spierein (Keira Knightley). A woman who would have spent her life in an insane asylum, if not undergoing trepanation, before Freud and Jung diagnose her as a sadomasochist and submissive. It goes without saying this sort of thing counterpointed against the repression of the Victorian area is too potent for Cronenberg to pass up. He’s found an able conspirator in the shape of Fassbender, who plays Jung as an intellectual’s intellectual so wrapped up in own thoughts he can’t put aside his dispassion even when talking about the sorest of subjects or being approached for an affair by a beautiful woman. The film spends most of its time in the push and pull between these opposing forces, delving into Jung’s personal life and how his work bleeds into it. The result is a complicated, conflicting film filled with excellent performances (though few can keep up with Fassbender, not even the formidable Mortensen).
All of which nearly, but not entirely, hides the film’s background as a play. Cronenberg works his scenes for all he’s worth, teaming with long time cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (“The Empire Strikes Back”) to build his sequences in deep focus, often keeping his actors from sharing space with one another even during marathon conversations. And they are some marathon conversations because “A Dangerous Method” is still a play at heart and can’t entirely hide its origins. No matter what tricks Cronenberg and his team fall back on we’re still ultimately left with two hours of often just two people in a room talking. Fans of in depth character work will be enthralled; fans of plot will be bored.
It does indeed take a long time for “A Dangerous Method” to get going. In fact, it doesn’t really hit its stride until Freud, his carefully controlled observations on anti-Semitism holding him back, makes his appearance to give Jung something to disagree with as he begins formulating his own ideas about the brain, based its suggested to us on his personal relationships. Hampton and Cronenberg have set up their triumvirate as a form of id, ego and superego, with Jung as the Ego and Spielrein as the Id. One of the only downsides is the fact that our three characters never spend any of their time together, as if they just aren’t allowed.
It’s probably not going to tell you anything useful about Jung or Freud or how the brain works or how their relationship fell apart, but it’s not supposed to either. What it will provide are some sterling performances and some classic Cronenberg repressed sado-masochism and sometimes that is enough.