Apr 19, 2012|
The birth of psychoanalysis, the friendship and schism between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, the influence of a beautiful, masochistic female patient on both men—David Cronenberg must have been jumping up and down when he found such juicy material for his new film. Helmer of such mind-bending thrillers as “Videodrome,” “Naked Lunch” and “The Fly,” the Canadian provocateur is known for his aggressive examinations of sex, violence and madness. So it’s a little strange that “A Dangerous Method,” though intelligent, wonderfully structured and perhaps Cronenberg’s most elegant and lucid work, is not as dangerous as expected.
Based on a play by screenwriter Christopher Hampton, which is itself drawn from John Kerr’s nonfiction book, the film is a commendably accurate recount of historical events. The story starts at the turn of the 20th Century, when 18-year-old Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a highly unstable Russian woman, is sent, by force, to a clinic in Zurich. The young hysteric is treated by Swiss psychologist Jung (Michael Fassbender), who finds in her a perfect patient with which to experiment in the then nascent and doubted Freudian method, the “talking cure.” The result is impressive: childhood memories are revealed, self-loathing and sexual frustrations are explained, and Spielrein not only regains basic functions, but also proves to be wickedly smart. With ambitions in becoming a psychiatrist herself, she begins working with Jung as an assistant.
Such positive progress inspires Jung to pay a visit to Freud (Viggo Mortensen) at his small Vienna home, where they meet for the first time. The young gun admires Freud’s vision, while the veteran sees Jung as the “crown prince” of his intellectual establishment. However, their mentorship and friendship turns sour over the next few years due to different beliefs and personalities, professional rivalry and the involvement of Spielrein, who emotionally falls for Jung but professionally stands by Freud. Persuaded by the hedonistic talks of Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), an immensely charming patient and fellow psychiatrist sent to him by Freud, Jung—though married to aristocratic wife Emma (Sarah Gadon)—engages in a sexual affair with Spielrein. The breakup is, of course, messy; and just like Spielrein indirectly brought the two men together, she becomes the catalyst of their famous split.
Dreams, the essence of “the unconscious,” also plays a crucial role. On a trip together to America, after analyzing Jung’s recent dream, Freud refuses to share his dreams because he doesn’t want to jeopardize his “authority” by letting others into his head. And just when Freud dismisses Jung’s mythical interests and deems them a threat to their scientific credibility, Jung recalls a nightmare of carnage that’s mysteriously premonitory of the upcoming World War I.
Fassbender and Mortensen each submit a marvelous performance, bringing the two giants of modern psychology vividly to life. Wealthy, proper and restrained, Jung is constantly tormented by his regretful decisions, while the sex-obsessed, cigar-loving Freud is full of charisma, but is vain, self-righteous and even a little paranoid. Their interactions (some intense, some awkward), along with a scene-stealing Cassel as Gross, surprisingly offer a good amount of funny moments. In comparison, Knightley is arguably miscast in the double-sided role of Spielrein: her portrayal of the severely damaged patient—featuring a lot of jaw-jutting, for which I have to give her credit—is overdone, and the bright intellectual in her who’s able to make profound impact on great men such as Jung and Freud comes across as unconvincing.
But something that’s totally convincing is the period settings, which were designed by the director and crew with stunning precision, from the Merchant-Ivory-esque costumes to Freud’s office that was recreated from old photos. Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore and Cronenberg’s regular cinematographer Peter Suschitzky are also on fine form.
At only 99 minutes, some of the latent yet important topics in the film such as race and religion (Jung’s Protestant vs. Spielrein and Freud’s Judaism) are left half-explored. And compared to another Cronenberg film about psychosexual disorder, his controversial 1996 J.G. Ballard adaptation “Crash,” “Method” is rather sedate and staid in style. Though it makes sense that the classy subject matter calls for a departure from his signature body-horror aesthetics, it’s a shame that the edge, sensation and thrill in the fascinating history haven’t been fully brought to the screen. That said, “Method” remains a worthy watch of intrigue; and—let’s be honest—we all want to see a half-naked Knightley get spanked.