A Not-so ‘Dangerous Method’

The exploration of the human’s innermost desires and subconscious has long been an issue of great fascination and debate. When the study of the psyche began gaining steam in the late 19th century, two prominent figures emerged as leaders of the subject — Sigmund Freud, and his protégé, Carl Jung.

As a historical film that dramatizes the relationship between the two experts and the woman who greatly affected them both, “A Dangerous Method” attempts to ask the audience great questions regarding morality and primal desire, but it ultimately and unfortunately falls short of achieving its goal.

Directed by David Cronenberg, the film is adapted by Christopher Hampton from his 2002 play, “The Talking Cure,” which in turn was based on John Kerr’s 1993 book “A Most Dangerous Method.”

The film opens with a screaming and maniacal Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), an 18-year-old Russian Jew being sent to an institute in Zurich, Switzerland to be treated for hysteria.

Spielrein meets Jung (Michael Fassbender) within minutes of her arrival, and he informs her politely that her treatment will involve meeting weekly to talk — nothing more, and nothing less.

Jung is in fact experimenting with the Talking Cure method, a radical new treatment developed by Freud (Viggo Mortensen) in which doctors are encouraged to earn the trust of their patients and help them through their illnesses by means of conversation.

Freud believed that the extensive periods of conversation could help relieve the patient of any sort of unconscious repression, which in turn would rebalance the patient and return them back to normal.

Spielrein quickly begins to divulge shocking bits of information to Jung, including her masochistic sexual desires. Her abusive father and childhood, she tells Jung, are the reasons why she has grown into such a “vile creature.”

As time passes, Spielrien begins to recover immensely from her attacks of hysteria and even begins to pursue the study of psychiatry herself. Jung is attracted to her intelligence and her beauty, and the two begin a passionate and emotional love affair that is as far removed as possible from Jung’s usually calculated and poised marital home life and career.

Being a longtime fan of  Cronenberg’s films, I wished to see his visceral and unflinching style, but “A Dangerous Method,” with its buttoned-up characters and sometimes drawn-out, clinical dialogue, left me a bit cold towards the concept and a few of the characters.

Jung is portrayed to polite, professional perfection by Fassbender. His hair is never out of place, his outfits are always sharp and his emotions are always kept in check.

While Cronenberg attempts to flesh out the inner conflicts within Jung, the relationships with the characters are never explored quite well enough to make the audience sympathetic towards Jung’s emotional turmoil.

Frequent skips into the future are also the likely cause of the stunting of the film’s emotions. Just as Freud and Jung begin to argue about the idea that all human action is driven by subconscious sexual desire, the scene rapidly cuts to Jung back at home with his wife or with Spielrein, and you feel as if no new ground had been covered in the film.

Multiple scenes of Jung lengthily conversing with Spielrein and Freud get a little frustrating, and you begin to wish they would get up and start doing something, anything, to add more substance to the film.

The physical juxtapositions in the film, however, are rather notable and praiseworthy. To further highlight the contrasting and vastly alien concept of primal sexual desire in a stiff-necked society, Cronenberg purposefully floods each scene with natural sunlight and gorgeous scenery. The subject matter is rather dark and twisted, but each scene features the characters in a brightly lit, beautifully idyllic environment. Even the room Spielrein was institutionalized in is sunny and warm.

The performances in the film are also a high point, with Fassbender giving an effective depiction of a man torn between following the footsteps of his mentor and submitting to his own ideas and wants.

Knightley’s Spielrein feels forced in the beginning, but as the character begins to mellow out, so does the performance. Even when she is cured, Knightley still maintains a hint of insanity, threatening to boil over at the slightest provocation.

The most pleasant surprise, however, is Mortensen’s portrayal of Freud. Cigar-chomping, frank and wonderfully humorous, Mortensen breaks his usual stereotype of the anti-hero to play the father of psychoanalysis to perfection.

In addition, Vincent Cassel’s portrayal of Otto Gross, an Austrian psychoanalyst with hedonistic morals who ultimately persuades Jung to give into his desires, works effectively to spice up the occasionally tedious film.

While the performance of each actor is enough to carry the film, the material simply isn’t substantial enough to quite deliver the emotional impact it wants.

Rating: 3 out of 5