The movie A Dangerous Method did not get wide distribution in the theaters last fall. It’s a curious slice of history from a director more known for mayhem than for restrained period pieces – David Cronenberg. Following up on A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, this is his third movie with Viggo Mortensen. It deals with the friendship and then antipathy between the two pioneers of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
A Russian woman by the name of Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightly) is brought in the throes of an intense manic episode to the Swiss sanitarium where Jung (Michael Fassbender) works. Jung has wanted to try Freud’s “talking cure” ever since reading about his theories. When discussing the case with his wife Emma (Sarah Gadon), she suggests Sabina might be the subject for whom he’s been waiting.
Sabina is a masochistic mess, thanks to abuse by her father from the time she was four. Yet she is also immensely intelligent and sensitive, with a desire to become a doctor. As part of a patient’s therapy at the sanitarium, the director wants them to participate in some sort of work. Jung asks Sabina to assist him with his other patients.
To consult about Sabina’s case, Jung travels to Vienna to meet with Freud (Viggo Mortensen). The men form a bond of collegial friendship from the first day, though it is complex and complicated. In contrast to Jung’s straightforward and straight-laced personality, Freud is sly and predisposed to his own notions. There is envy between them, as Jung is a wealthy Protestant (thanks to his wife’s inheritance) while Freud is a Jew living in modest circumstances and feeling discriminated against for his work by the Viennese medical community.
Sabina enters medical school, aiming to become a psychoanalyst herself. Then Jung’s world is shaken when Freud sends Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) to the sanitarium for treatment. Gross was a psychoanalyst himself and an early disciple of Freud’s who became an advocate of anti-psychiatry and free love. Jung’s attempts to analyze Gross are turned back upon him, causing Jung to question his work and his life. It also leads to Jung crossing the professional line with Sabina, who is a willing participant in his change.
The script by Christopher Hampton, adapting both his play “The Talking Method” as well as the book “A Very Dangerous Method,” is both literate and historically accurate. Hampton also did the adaptations of 2002’s The Quiet American as well as 2007’s Atonement. His first major hit was writing the play Dangerous Liasons, which won him an Oscar when he adapted it for the 1988 Glenn Close/John Malkovich movie.
While movies such as this are usually the province of English directors, the Canadian Cronenberg brings the energetic dynamism of his other features and layers it beneath the calm surface. Cronenberg has delved into the psyche before, with 2002’s Spider, staring Ralph Fiennes, as well as 1988’s Dead Ringers.
Although he receives third billing, Michael Fassbender’s Jung is the center of the movie. Jung had suffered a mental breakdown during WWI, though he recovered and lived for another 40 years, putting his imprint of the practice of psychology. You see the seeds of that breakdown sprinkled through Fassbender’s performance. He is a remarkable talent on the screen.
Kiera Knightley’s Sabina is at first a raw id in a world of superegos. She almost goes over the top with her physicality, but it’s fascinating to watch the character then rein in those tendencies as she gains control. Knightley does invest herself fully in the role, willingly embodying the ugliness of uncontrolled obsession.
Mortensen has maybe half the screen time that Fassbender has, but it’s wonderful to watch their interplay when they’re together, especially as they change from colleagues to competitors. His Freud is always calm on the surface, but below there’s vanity and passive aggression. He does manage to use a cigar throughout the movie as a prop without making it Freudian, which is an accomplishment. The actor who seems to be having the most fun is Vincent Cassel as the reprobate Gross. While the Jung/Freud interplay is like a chess match, Jung and Gross are fencers, parrying and thrusting with each line.
The main weakness of the movie is that the story lacks the dramatic impetus of Atonement or Dangerous Liasons; it’s more interesting for the acting and its view of history. Think of it as a chamber orchestra piece, rather than a symphony. It’s not a major composition that’s emotionally enthralling. As a window into a not-generally-known piece of history, though, it does have its fascination.