Director David Cronenberg took a decidedly idiosyncratic turn in his latest film, shifting from grim tales of violence and betrayal (Eastern Promises, A History of Violence) to a grim tale of psychoanalysis and sex.
The result, A Dangerous Method, is less successful and only intermittently as interesting as the other films I mentioned. It follows the relationship between psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), filtered in part through their dealings with Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a woman who is a patient of Jung’s, then his lover, then a colleague of Freud’s and a psychoanalyst in her own right.
The film, adapted by Christopher Hampton from his play and John Kerr’s book A Most Dangerous Method, unfolds over a period of years during which Spielrein changes dramatically; she is first seen as hysterical but by the end of the film may be the most emotionally settled of the three. Jung, meanwhile, finds himself questioning Freud more and more — while also having to deal with his own weaknesses, including his maintaining both a marriage and the relationship with Spielrein. And Freud finds himself ever more disdainful of Jung’s ideas and perhaps of Jung himself. (The movie notes more than once the contrast in lifestyles between the middle-class Freud and the more lavishly living Jung, who is married to a wealthy woman.)
All this plays out through letters, conversations and a combination of bursts of passion with a repression of high emotion. Much of the tension in the movie stems from Jung’s participation in some of Spielrein’s darker desires, but doing so with a look that suggests he is resisting any response within himself. Freud, for that matter, affects an air of detachment but, especially in Mortensen’s artful performance, cannot always hide a certain seething underneath.
The trouble with the movie is that it, too, seems repressed. Part of this results from its trying to cover a long period, and so leaping from one meeting among the principals to another instead of letting us see more clearly how emotions shift. Like Freud and Jung, it flees any time the two male characters’ feelings become too intense; indeed, Knightley’s performance often seems to be crashing in from another film (or another world) as she lays bare what she feels in all its heat, and Freud or Jung sees it as a reason to write another letter.
Knightley’s performance, then, is more than a little jarring in the context of the film. Fassbender — also in the current Haywire and Shame — gives a performance that seems understated at first but which keeps a lot going around his eyes; there’s a scene late in the film, when Spielrein quizzes Jung about his latest lover, where he sums up Jung’s entire journey in his facial expressions. But Mortensen — a frequent Cronenberg player — dominates every scene he is in, his Freud all too knowing about his contemporaries even if he does not entirely know himself. A Dangerous Method, as well, seems not to have known exactly what it is, so dry and detached from the uncontrollable desire at its heart.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and in the HeldenFiles Online blog at http://heldenfels.ohio.com and on Facebook and Twitter. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.