A Dangerous Method

April 12, 2012
Screen shot 2012-05-07 at 11.20.16 AM

When a film is based on a play called  The Talking Cure, it is only to be expected there will be a lot of chat, with relatively few scenes of animatronic monsters and bloodthirsty vampires. Nevertheless, in these days when even Sherlock Holmes has become a Kung Fu hero, one learns to expect anything.

It is with a degree of relief I can report that A Dangerous Method is indeed heavy on the dialogue, but mercifully free of supernatural terrors, unless psychoanalysis can be so classified. Not so many years ago, a film by Canadian director, David Cronenberg, could be relied upon for a surfeit of horror and schlock. Great claims were always made about the intelligence of his movies, but I found them to be relentlessly B-grade, with none of the redeeming cheapness, kitsch and self-parody of true B-graders such as Jesus Franco or Roger Corman.

Cronenberg always aspired to higher things, and his work over the past decade has become increasingly respectable. A Dangerous Method is his most ambitious venture: a tale of an unconventional menage between Carl Gustav Jung, Sigmund Freud, and a little-known Russian acolyte of psychoanalysis, Sabina Spielrein.

Jung and Sabina have an intense, perverse, sexual relationship, but the true thwarted love affair is the platonic one between Jung and Freud. While Michael Fassbender’s Jung is the main protagonist of this film, its axis is Viggo Mortensen’s Freud, the man who launched the great adventure and pseudo-science we call psychoanalysis. Jung begins as Freud’s enthusiastic disciple, seeing the older man as a father figure. As the years roll by – or in this instance, the minutes – a rift begins to widen.

It has partly to do with Jung’s fascination with paranormal phenomena, which Freud ses as humbug. There are deeper reasons in that Freud is Jewish, and Jung of Swiss Protestant stock. Freud is relatively poor, while Jung is well-off, thanks to his wife Emma (Sarah Gadon), being a wealthy heiress. Beyond that it is the classic Oedipal drama of the son wanting to kill off the father and take over leadership of the tribe.

When Jung first visits Freud they talk for thirteen hours. We know this because Freud says: “Do you realise our conversation has been going for thirteen hours?” Jung’s big subject is a new patient, Sabina Spielrein, a Russian Jewish teenager, afflicted with the symptoms of hysteria. Sabina is highly intelligent and highly disturbed. She has masochistic fantasies, and makes an idol out of Jung, who begins as her doctor, then becomes her mentor, and finally her lover.

If there is any notable acting in this film, it comes from Keira Knightley as Sabina, who squirms, writhes, gasps, pants, sticks out her jaw, bares her teeth and makes bug eyes at everyone – giving a faithful impression of an hysteric. Had this been a Cronenberg feature of twenty years ago, she would inevitably have had an alien explode from her chest. In these more respectable days she merely calms down and goes off to study medicine.

As for Michael Fassbender, he is unrecognisable from the sex addict who rutted his way through Steve McQueen’s Shame earlier this year. Neither does Viggo Mortensen ever get out of first gear as the urbane, authoritative Freud. When most of the film is dialogue, and much of that dialogue is cribbed from letters, diaries and historical accounts, it is difficult to avoid the impression that we are watching one long seminar, albeit a seminar largely devoted to sexual topics.

Even Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross, a renegade analyst who regales Jung with his libertarian fantasies, tends to deliver his lines in lecture form. One begins to suspect these people feel it is much more exciting to talk about sex than to practise it. Freud is portrayed as uptight, Jung is guilt-wracked, while Sabina just wants to roll her eyes and be hit with a stick. Like most roles played by Vincent Cassel, Gross is a major sleazebag, but also a compulsive theorist – a far more serious affliction.

The very ordinary use of background music and  pedestrian cinematography suggest that Cronenberg is still an overrated director. He doesn’t seem to get the best from actors, or feel the need to do anything but tell the story in methodical fashion. Despite all of this, A Dangerous Method is not a failure. It is not the acting or the directing, but the ideas that carry the day.

Regardless of the babble, and the stiffness that ensues when one tries to recreate wellknown historical episodes, such as the time Jung relates a patricidal dream to Freud, A Dangerous Method works better than might be expected. Scriptwriter, Christopher Hampton, in adapting his own play, has managed to construct a web of controversy that keeps us constantly engaged with these intellectual pioneers, these physicians of the mind who seem so incapable of curing themselves.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, April 12, 2012

A Dangerous Method, UK, Germany, Canada, Switzerland, Rated MA, 99 minutes