From acclaimed director David Cronenberg (A History of Violence) comes a dark tale of sexual and intellectual discovery, featuring two of the greatest minds of the 20th century. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender, Shame) has just begun his psychiatric career, having been inspired by the great Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen, The Lord of the Rings trilogy). When a mysterious and beautiful woman (Keira Knightley, Atonement) goes under Jung’s care, Jung finds himself crossing the line of the doctor/patient relationship, causing great conflict with his mentor and making Jung question his own morality in the process.
eyelights: Michael Fassbinder. Viggo Mortensen. Vincent Cassel.
eyesores: Keira Knightley.
I don’t know what’s going on with David Cronenberg these last few years, but he’s really taken me by surprise. In the last decade, he’s completely shed his penchant for exploring more abstract subject matter. It’s not that he strictly focused on unusual fare, but he wouldn’t steer clear for very long; for every ‘M. Butterfly’, there was ‘The Naked Lunch’, ‘Crash’, ‘Existenz’ and ‘Spider’.
But lately, he’s gone off on a longer streak, directing ‘A History of Violence’, ‘Eastern Promises’ and ‘A Dangerous Method’ back-to-back (‘Cosmopolis’ may also apply, but I haven’t seen it). I’m not complaining: as much as I like the abstract nature of his earlier works, I find his most recent films all exceptional, with no weaknesses to speak of – whereas there was always something that nagged at me with his previous films.
Still, I rather enjoyed the challenge of old school Cronenberg. I loved watching his films, knowing to expect the unexpected, trying to wrap my mind around notions that were very alien to me. His work had a style of its own and it was fun to explore; its distinctiveness made it appealing, even as it wasn’t entirely accessible. Now, his films are more straight-forward, even-keeled and solid.
‘A Dangerous Method’ is exactly that. It’s a terrific film by any standard. But it lacks that distinctive flavour that I used to crave in Cronenberg’s works. It’s much easier to watch, and in this sense I prefer it, but it also isn’t nearly as memorable – there aren’t any parts that jarred me or stuck to the roof of my brain like some sort of intellectual peanut butter.
The story is excellent: it’s about the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and Sabina Spielrein, the woman who came between them. I have no idea how factual it is, quite frankly, but it was an interesting story. I loved the way Jung’s relationship with Spielrein grows and then sours as she becomes more demanding, and seeing how they interacted with Freud, with whom Jung had a love-hate relationship.
The movie is based on a Christopher Hampton play, which in turn was based on John Kerr’s book, ‘A Most Dangerous Method: The story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein’. Initially, Hampton had devised a screenplay for a Julia Roberts vehicle. Later, Christian Bale and Christopher Waltz were attached to the picture. But, over the course of well over a decade the project morphed dramatically.
Personally, I can’t even fathom what the picture would have been like with Roberts in the lead. While I have my reservations about Keira Knightley’s performance, particularly in the early stages of the picture when her character suffered from “hysteria” (during which she seemed perhaps too eager to prove herself for my taste), I can’t fathom Roberts doing the part justice – even is she has won an Academy Award.
Knightley pulls through reasonably well after she gets over her hysterical fits and finally acts more naturally. Her accent bothered me, but what the heck do I know about accents? It might be exact. If anything, the film is worth seeing for Michael Fassbender and Vitto Mortensen. Mortensen is always fantastic, of course, but it was their interactions that were the driving force of the film, even if they were relatively rare.
‘A Dangerous Method’ explores both psychiatrists’ theories to some degree. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the aspects that I enjoyed the most; the film develops sufficiently this satisfyingly and the contrast between the two is examined to some degree. I don’t remember my psychology classes from university at this point, but it seemed accurate enough. And I suspect that if it weren’t there would have been much criticism.
The film is also about sex, both because of Freud obstinate insistence that sex was the root cause of most behavioural dysfunction and because of the relationship between Jung and Spielrein. It’s not particularly lurid, in that most of it consists of discussion between Jung and Freud, with some relatively innocuous sexual behaviour between Jung and Spielrein – the only caveat being a light spanking sequence.
The direction and production are pretty much flawless. I’m sure there are minor issues, but I didn’t catch any. What is of particular note is that the film is apparently constructed to mirror Wagner ‘Siegfried’ opera, and even the motion picture score by Howard Shore is representative of Wagner’s work. I wouldn’t know anything about it, of course, but I am now curious to explore ‘Siegfried’ and compare the two.
All this to say that, even though ‘A Dangerous Method’ is a fairly straight-forward historical drama, it has something to offer to anyone who likes period pieces, observing and discussing human behaviour, and fact-based fiction. It’s yet another strong effort from David Cronenberg, who’s maturing into one of Canada’s greatest filmmakers; he’s no longer merely provocative and thought-provoking, there’s more measure in his method.
Date of viewing: May 1, 2013