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A Dangerous Method

Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender in "A Dangerous Method"

Hey, Watch Where You Put That Cigar!

A Dangerous Method

In David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method someone remarks that successful psychiatrists are themselves very often psychically wounded individuals. Cronenberg’s film certainly dramatizes that observation. The three primary characters, all psychiatrists, indulge in foolish and bad behavior. Two of them, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, are also towering figures in psychiatry and modern history.

The movie is, in part, a dramatization of the important, ill-fated relationship between Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Freud (Viggo Mortensen) during the beginning of the 20th century and the early years of the psychoanalytic movement. There’s a second crucial pairing in it, that between Jung and a young female patient, one who soon becomes more than just an analysand for him. This young woman, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), an 18-year-old hysteric, is also a historical character, though the film’s portrayal of her isn’t always scrupulously in accord with that record.

Dangerous Method opens with very unsettling scenes of Spielrein’s involuntary committal to the Zurich hospital where the 30-year-old Jung is assigned to her case. He undertakes his first attempt at the new, much controverted “talking cure” that Freud has pioneered but which he hasn’t described in much detail. Two years later, Spielrein’s recovery has been so complete she has not only already assisted Jung in his research, but at his urging, enrolled in medical school to become a psychiatrist herself. It is because of her and her case that Jung arranges to meet the controversial older man in order to discuss psychoanalytic theory and practice.

Cronenberg’s film has been adapted by Christopher Hampton from his own play of the same title. It’s structured as an interpersonal triangle, with Jung at the apex. (Jung’s romantic subjectivity has long appealed to artists and others more than Freud’s more prescriptive probing and “scientific” emphases.) As the married Jung enters into a stormy and often sexually unconventional affair with his patient, his increasingly warm alliance and collaboration with Freud grows, to the point where he is becoming heir-apparent to the master in psychoanalysis. That day, as we know, never came. Dangerous Method provides a fair and interesting, if necessarily abbreviated account of their notorious falling out following Jung’s growing disaffection from his mentor and his psychiatric philosophy.

But the filmmakers’ real interest is Jung’s tortured affair with Spielrein. They give us the impression that it’s this experience that somehow freed him not only spiritually but intellectually, not just from petty bourgeois sexual convention but his latently Oedipal connection to Freud. But it’s a little difficult to share their interest in this allegedly fateful liaison, or to quite believe in its signal importance.

The problem begins with Knightley’s much-lauded but off-key performance. In the early scenes, her portrayal of Spielrein is so exaggeratedly contorted and abandoned it’s a kind of bravura grotesquery. And her cured Sabina has a nervous intensity and disquietude that doesn’t accord with the character’s supposed accomplishments. The disparity is more pronounced because of Fassbender’s measured, sometimes almost impassive performance. His Jung comes across as a stolid, middle-class exemplar despite his regressively passionate affair.

Mortensen’s Freud is more persuasively modeled, the personality glimpsed in details, gestures and inflections. He conveys a proprietary, self-assured concern and also a hint of defensive anxiety. The star-crossed downward trajectory of Freud and Jung’s relations is more interesting than the latter’s purportedly critical experiences with Spielrein. It’s also more consonant with facts. It’s far from clear that her effect on either man was as important as the film has it.

Cronenberg and Hampton are entitled to their interpretation, of course, but their film should have been more involving in offering it.

Watch the trailer for A Dangerous Method

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