(No longer in theaters)
Sony Pictures Classics
Nov 23, 2011
On first viewing, I found David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method a wordy bore, but I saw it again after Shame and did … not a 180, but at least a 160-degree turn. That wordiness coupled with Cronenberg’s classical restraint is part of the splendid Freudian joke at the movie’s center. Based on a play by Christopher Hampton (with the better title The Talking Cure), the film focuses on three eggheads earnestly trying to create a theoretical framework for their sexual impulses. This will be the basis for the strange new field of psychotherapy.
With a little mustache and specs, Fassbender plays Carl Jung to Viggo Mortensen’s Sigmund Freud. But the pivotal character is Jung’s patient Sabina Spielrein, a disturbed Russian Jewish woman first seen shrieking her head off in a carriage bound for Jung’s Zurich hospital. Sabina is played by Keira Knightley in a style that would seem over-the-top from across the Roman Coliseum, let alone in close-up spitting out her Slavic consonants and overworking her long jaw. But I came to admire Knightley’s guts. She physicalizes every thought, every emotion, which makes for a nice contrast with all the other characters, who are hopelessly repressed.
Mortensen plays Freud — very wittily — as the most buttoned-up: He studies people, puffing on a cigar that’s not just a cigar since he looks as if he’s thinking dirty thoughts. Which he is. That’s one source of the rift between him and Jung, who’s open to mysticism and the supernatural, who doesn’t want sex to be the only explanation for how people behave. But sex is the only reason for much of what happens in A Dangerous Method. Goaded on by Otto Gross (a delightfully lewd Vincent Cassell), an aptly named patient and therapist sent to Zurich by Freud (the saboteur!), Jung has an S&M affair with Sabina — who then becomes a therapist herself and tries to convince Freud that the sex drive is demonic and self-annihilating. Freud studies her, puffing on his cigar. He knows when to shut up.
A Dangerous Method doesn’t climax so much as peter out, its characters separated by philosophy and religion and social status. In Zurich, Jung is supported by his rich wife, while Freud, the Viennese Jew, remains middle class —a nd a pariah. Sabina, both Jewish and female, has the biggest obstacles but holds her own and then some. Oh, for the days when people could announce they were going off to be psychoanalyzed, before Freudianism became synonymous with “reductive.” Sure, Freud and Jung have a wide streak of hypocrisy, but compared to the blind acting-out and trendy despair of Shame, A Dangerous Method is a road map to happiness, chock-full of tips on how to reconcile our disparate impulses. The whole movie is a talking cure.