NOTE: This review was originally published on September 9, 2011 after I saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival. I am reprinting it here as it hits limited theaters this week.
I tend to enjoy talky films, but said films run into trouble when what’s being said isn’t all that interesting. Tracing a nine year relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method is a mixture of letter-writing and long-winded conversations between the two men and the woman wedged between them. There are interesting facets to the story and it’s expertly told, but for the most part I found it all to be rather inconsequential.
Beginning in 1904 in Switzerland, a carriage is bringing a young Russian girl by the name of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) to a Swiss mental hospital near Zurich where she will soon become the patient of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). As Sabina, Knightley struggles for each word early on, freakishly jutting her chin in such a way you begin to think her lower jaw may soon become detached and contorting her hands to the point I was concerned her bones may break. It’s as disturbing an introduction as I can remember.
Jung hopes to use methods proposed by his idol Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), a man he reveres but has never met, to treat the girl who’s been abused and struggles with feelings of shame caused by the sexual excitement she gains when her father beats her. The methods work and she begins showing signs of promise and articulation. She’s intelligent and dreams of being a psychiatrist, which is quite a transition from the folded mess she was in the opening.
Two years later, Jung is finally going to meet his hero in Vienna. Almost serenading the audience with his Austrian accent, Mortensen is instantly Sigmund Freud without a shadow of a doubt. With a calm, cool and elegant demeanor he walks with confidence, cane at his side and cigar always hanging from his mouth. He seduces the audience and he seduces Jung, even though Jung hopes to challenge his theory that sexual impulses are the main catalyst of human behavior. Jung refuses to believe it could be so simple and yet he would soon help prove Freud’s theory himself.
Not a man to believe in coincidence you would think Jung would be more wary when Freud asks him to treat a fellow psychiatrist in Otto Gross as played by Vincent Cassel. Gross shows up on Jung’s doorstep and is soon feeding Jung lines of sexual liberation, suggesting he never suppress anything and give in to his urges. He does. Sabina has already invited him to her bed and despite his loyalty to his wife he gives in to temptation… and a little bit of spanking.
With each action Jung takes, though, he seems to learn from it. At one point he utters the most telling line of the film saying, “Only the wounded physician can hope to heal.” It’s a quote that cuts to the core of the film’s narrative, but it doesn’t make it entirely satisfying.
Some interesting ideas are explored in A Dangerous Method, but nothing so grand you wish to explore them beyond the film itself. The performances are top notch, with the highest of marks going to Mortensen and Knightley, the latter of which runs the gamut of emotions and does so in stellar form. From the creepy and convulsing first minutes of Sabina’s introduction to the more reserved and confident woman she becomes; it is quite a transformation.
This is a film you wouldn’t necessarily expect from Cronenberg, though his technical abilities remain with a careful eye and some fascinating uses of deep focus in particular. Christopher Hampton’s (Atonement) screenplay, based on his play “The Talking Cure” and the book by John Kerr, offers brief moments of humor, but for the most part we’re talking about a film that never stops talking whether it’s long conversations from one scene to the next or voice over reading the letters sent back and forth between the two all-star psychoanalysts. What’s being said is important to the story, but it isn’t so interesting it sticks.
Despite spanning nine years, A Dangerous Method plays like a small piece of a larger puzzle. The breadth of time is never really felt outside of the myriad of pregnancies involved. It could have just as easily spanned the course of one year and I never would have known the difference. It holds your attention for its brief 99 minute running time, but by the time you’re done it’s easy enough to forget about and go on with your day.