A film review by Craig J. Koban January 16, 2011

Rank:  #22 


2011, R, 99 mins.


Freud: Viggo Mortensen / Jung: Michael Fassbender / Sabina: Keira Knightley / Emma: Sarah Gadon / Otto Goss: Vincent Cassel

Directed by David Cronenberg / Written by Christopher Hampton, based on his play “The Talking Cure” and the book A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr.

David Cronenberg's endlessly captivating A DANGEROUS METHOD provides a portal into the past and gives viewers an intimate glimpse into the two preeminent psychiatric minds of the last 100-plus years.  

Mixing dramatic speculation and historical fact, Cronenberg collaborates with Oscar winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton (DANGEROUS LIAISONS and ATONEMENT) to adapt his own 2002 play (THE TALKING CURE) into a shrewd and patiently observant chronicle of the fathers of modern psychoanalysis, Sigmund Feud and Carl Jung, while also spinning an illicit tale of Jung’s own tawdry love affair with one of his own patients, Sabina Spielrein.  What emerges is an deeply intriguing period drama that highlights not only a clash of high intellectual egos, but also the romantic tragedy of Jung's affair that he had difficulty coming clean about, much to his elder mentor’s chagrin. 

A DANGEROUS METHOD covers nearly a decade in the lives of the players, traversing from 1904 and concluding itself just before the outbreak of the Great War.  Although it may appear that Freud (Viggo Mortensen, his third collaboration with Cronenberg after A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and EASTERN PROMISES) will the primary focus of interest here, it’s actually Jung’s (Michael Fassbender) story and told largely from his prerogative.  The film flings viewers right into the moment where a Russian woman, Spielrein (Kiera Knightley) arrives at Jung’s clinic in Zurich in 1904.  She is a manically unstable woman prone to wild and unpredictable outbursts.  Jung takes her in and begins his radical “talking therapy” on her, but the more time he spends with his deeply deranged and dysfunctional woman the more he begins to see that her disorder may have something to do with the fact that any type of physical punishment perpetrated on her heightens her sexual arousal.  She is ravaged by guilt about these desires, but she nonetheless…likes them. 

Paging Dr. Freud. 

Jung, of course, is immediately intoxicated with his new patient, which he shares with his friend, professional colleague, and mentor, Freud, who always seems to have a Svengali-like grip over his young disciple.  Freud constantly preaches to Jung to utilize only the rational and just form of psychoanalysis with his patients, but Jung grows increasingly despondent with his teachings, wanting to use different and potentially more radical forms of therapy.  As Jung sets his own path of healing for Spielrein his obsession with her more twisted sexual proclivities increases; he begins to fall in love with her and soon their relationship goes from patient-doctor to mutual lovers.  Jung realizes that his personal and professional life hang in the balance, but breaking off his affair with Spielrein proves to be much more complex than even he imagines.  Exacerbating the entire situation is that Jung is keeping everything away from Freud, who eventually finds himself caught in the middle of it all. 



Many of Cronenberg’s past films have concerned themselves with bodily and mental dysfunction whereas others have dealt with the oftentimes-sickening sexual appetites of his characters.  A DANGEROUS METHOD is definitely more restrained from his other work, but there is still plenty of low-key kinky eroticism here on display as he explores the dark inner frailties of both Jung and Spielrein.  The film deals with themes of sexual repression and how this may or may not have a link to unhealthy mental states.  The fact that this Cronenberg film does not have his typical penchant for graphic violence and the outward physical transformations of his characters is noteworthy: his reigned-in, less-is-more approach to the material here helps ground viewers in the central character dynamics and how they all deal with their own inherent insecurities and anxieties.   

It’s easy to be taken in with the seediness of the Jung/Spielrein affair in the film, but the other troubled relationship between Jung and Freud is arguably more captivating and fascinatingly complex.  Freud is shown as a sort of grandfatherly figure of wisdom, verbal charm, outward gentleness and generosity, but he’s inwardly a dispassionate man of science that wants to control all those around him.  Jung, on the other hand, has interests beyond the standard dogma of psychoanalysis and yearns to find alternative modes of therapy, which frustrates the staunch pragmatist in Freud.  Then there is the inseparable gap between both men that is created because of Jung’s affair and his reluctance to admit it to Freud, which causes further shockwaves in their relationship.  Their one-on-one vocal battles of wits are the film’s highlights. 

Without the resoundingly strong triumvirate of Mortensen, Fassbender, and Knightley, the film would sink.  Knightley’s initial performance hysterics (largely made up shrieking, twitching, contorting her body, and so on) is a bit tough to get adjusted to at first, but as the film settles down so does her work as she creates a thoroughly compelling portrait of a multi-faceted woman that has hopes and aspirations beyond her initial psychosis; using Jung and Freud, to a degree, seems justifiable to her as part of her end game.   Knightley has a tricky task of going from a woman of hostile outward intensity to one that begins to mentally heal and then is thrust into new quandaries that hold her back.  Yes, her Russian accent may be spotty at times, but her complete immersion into her character is laudable. 

Then we have the meeting of the minds as played by the great Fassbender and Mortensen, the latter who masterfully shows Freud as a man restricted and submerged within his own views and opinions.  Mortensen also captures his simple authoritative charisma and, at times, his affinity for dry humor.   Fassbander has the tougher assignment, though, as the actor – more typically known for his magnetic on-screen bravado and smoldering intensity – has to somehow restrain himself within Jung’s tight-collared and recessively aristocratic world that both professionally and personally sustains and holds him back.  It’s sort of thankless that both Fassbender and Mortensen have to credibly inhabit such revered titans of intellectual merit while making these characters wholly their own. 

A DANGEROUS METHOD may be Cronenberg’s least visually flashy film (it’s like a Merchant-Ivory period drama in design and implementation, but with a bit more emotional sizzle and carnal sensuality), but he and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky nonetheless create a serenely beautiful evocation of the interior and exterior lives of these turn-of-the-Century personas.  This may be Cronenberg at his most reserved and modulated, but his lack of flashy and ostentatious artifice here lends to his portrayal of the character's inwardly damaged psyches.  Just look at the film’s final shot, a deeply focused and contained image of Jung’s tormented face as he struggles to find ways of dealing with all of his nagging past indiscretions.  He knows at this moment, for lack of a better phrase, that he’s royally screwed.  

Maybe Freud would agree.

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