David Cronenberg’s latest film explores how the relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud gave birth to psychoanalysis.
It’s not surprising that Cronenberg the director of such violent, gory and mind-warping classics such as Videodrome and Dead Ringers would be interested in the dark complex world of psychoanalysis. What is surprising is that the film itself isn’t as violent or sexually explicit as fans of Cronenberg would expect.
A Dangerous Method opens in the year 1904 as a manic, troubled young Russian woman named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly) is being forcibly institutionalised into a clinic in Zurich. She is placed into the care of a psychiatrist named Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) who applies the methods of his mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) to treat his new patient. Although Jung and Freud have not met at this time Jung is familiar with Freud’s work in this field and will soon be invited to Vienna to meet him.
As Sabina recovers and actually begins to study psychology Jung is slowly drawn to her and they begin an affair. The affair and differing views on psychoanalysis leads to a rift between Jung and Freud.
Screenwriter Christopher Hampton adapting his own 2002 stage play ‘The Talking Cure’ (itself an adaptation of a novel by John Kerr called ‘A Most Dangerous Method’) gives plenty for the actors to chew on and thankfully the actors are more than up to the task. Mortensen, on his third collaboration with Cronenberg, is smooth and calculated as Freud but hints at more beneath the calm logical facade. Fassbender continues his incredible run of roles. Following on from his mesmerizing performance in Shame, here he plays Jung as man torn between his intellect and his sexual desires. In the hands of a less experienced actor we may have seen a more sympathetic Jung character but Fassbender doesn’t feel the need to invoke such characteristics.
Knightly’s physical performance, especially early on, may be very off-putting for some but others must shoulder some of the blame. From all accounts her performance is an accurate display of Spielrein’s physical ailments however Cronenberg places the camera so close to Knightly every physical tick or jutting jaw she makes is amplified ten-fold. Also the script doesn’t allow enough transition time for Spielrein to go from patient of Jung to student. However once that transition is complete, Knightly proves she is equal to her more experienced co-stars.
Vincent Cassell has a small, comical but pivotal role as a sex crazed patient of Jung’s who turns the tables on his psychiatrist and convinces Jung to give in to his primal urges.
Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender; left) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) engaged in thoughtful discussion.
Where the film really shines though is when Jung and Freud are on screen together. Their conversations inside Freud’s smoke filled apartment are humorous, engaging and thought provoking. There is a mutual respect between the two characters as well as a professional rivalry. The actors are very comfortable in their roles and the dialogue never feels like we are attending a lecture on psychoanalysis. It is a shame there are not more of these scenes between Freud and Jung. Perhaps that would have made a good film great.
There are many themes running through the film including anti-semitism and class systems and Cronenberg does well to subtly infuse his film with them. The film certainly looks and feels like early twentieth century Europe and credit must go to the production team and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky for bringing the era to life so vividly.
For those expecting a sordid, mind-bending erotic piece on psychoanalysis from Cronenberg (aside from a few Keira Knightly spanking scenes) you will be disappointed. But if it is a well acted and thoughtful adult drama you seek, then look no further.