A Dangerous Method (2011, David Cronenberg)
Say this for the historical accuracy of A Dangerous Method: when Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud met, they probably really did talk a whole fucking lot, hence this being one of the talkiest movies of recent vintage. And well, it’s about the “talking cure,” after all — its early application to Jung’s patient and mistress Sabina Spielrein, who would become one of the first female psychoanalysts. This fact-based drama is delivered wholly through lengthy dialogue sequences, undoubtedly a result as much of the subject matter as of its origins as a stage play by writer Christopher Hampton. If anyone could make exciting cinema out of this potentially fascinating story, you’d think it would be David Cronenberg.
Alas, his treatment of the characters, story, and words are all shockingly mannered and overly polite. His inventive contribution seems to have simply been the fabrication of striking images to complement the long actorly showcases that comprise most of the narrative. Like Jung himself, Method savors compartmentalization and seems to politely avert its eyes when such order is challenged — the discover of Sabina’s sadomasochism leads to a sexual breakthrough, which in turn is manifested in rather lively (and convincing) love scenes that consist, in what’s really all too rare even now in cinema, of unorthodox adult play. Unorthodox in movie-land, anyway; there’s spanking and slapping but it’s all very respectful and upfront — and the dignity and distance of the surrounding scenes is either a big erotic parlor trick or just underlines how little can really be done to make the rest of this material interesting to a general audience.
The crux of Hampton’s is not really how Spielrein alters the relationship of the two men or Jung’s own outlook, but how an eternal wave of debate between rationality and superstition, and then in regard to ethics and sexuality, creates a rift between the two psychological luminaries. A major turn comes when Freud no longer wishes to hear about Jung’s dreams so he can cast an interpretation upon them. We’ve all been there in our adult relationships, right? Look, showing my ignorance here: I have no doubt that there’s some merit to this film’s treatment of a volatile and revelatory time in psychoanalysis, then in its infancy — but the truth is that even Hitchcock was never able to make an exceptionally interesting movie about psychoanalysis, despite a concerted and noble attempt (Spellbound), and the constant dialogues and hair-splitting involved are uncinematic. I’m sure someone will find a way to prove otherwise someday, but so far nothing, and Cronenberg gets saddled here with making a TV movie, more or less, albeit one with a good bit of sex and some unforgettable compositions. There’s no life to it, apart from that.
Hampton’s other big revelation, and in turn the most striking moment of the picture, shows up in the closing titles, when it’s revealed just how much easier Jung’s life turned out to be than either of the other principals, both of whom suffered mightily under the tide of Nazism in Europe. There’s something pointed, almost accusatory in the way that this man, whose indecisiveness and pie-in-the-sky mentality are so thoroughly challenged by the film, is shown to have become the most monstrously successful creature in the history of the field. It renders more moving and sad that Freud would die penniless, that Spielrein would be unceremoniously killed by the SS during a 1942 raid. Such emotions are hampered a bit by the underscoring of Howard Shore’s contribution, which sounds curiously similar to virtually every other score he’s written in the last ten years, but perhaps it’s only a mark of the film’s own limitations that we notice.
The one element here that can be unequivocally praised is the acting; Keira Knightley is thoroughly convincing and commanding of deep, magnetic sympathy as Spielrein; Michael Fassbender’s tightly wound, perpetually nervous Jung captures the play’s conception of the character magnificently (on stage the part was filled by Ralph Fiennes, another actor who can capture that icy mixture of confidence and terror); and in a miniscule role as Freud’s half-mad disciple Otto Gross, Vincent Cassel makes an indelible and feverishly sensual impression, far more sophisticated than his more celebrated turn in Black Swan a year earlier. The weak link is clearly Viggo Mortensen’s Sigmund Freud, which is too straightforward a reading of the role; in turn, as nice as it is that this film gives these actors such a fine opportunity, their efforts are squandered by the absence of real personality behind the camera. Again, a really strong and adventurous film could’ve been made about this, but this isn’t it.