A Dangerous Method
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Written by: Christopher Hampton (screenplay & play), John Kerr (book)
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassel
David Cronenberg is a director obsessed with the crossroads of violence and sex. His films vary greatly in both tone and narrative structure. For proof (since we are soon talking about science) lay down the science fiction horror show Videodrome next to his more recent pulpy small-town thriller A History of Violence.
It makes since, then, that a film about the birth of psychoanalysis, revolving around the violent sexual relationship between Dr. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his patient Sabina Spielren (Keira Knightley), would be a work best fit for someone like Cronenberg. A Dangerous Method is not a straight-forward exercise in period filmmaking like its costumes and curiously English-speaking Europeans suggest, though. The film begins intent on dispelling that rumor, as Spielren howls with bursts of rage and laughter in the claustrophobic confines of a horse carriage. She is dragged out by a group of men and taken into Dr. Jung’s care in Switzerland.
Much of A Dangerous Method is conversational, more specifically the point/counterpoint rhythm of a therapist’s conversation with a patient. The three main focal points are Jung, Spielren and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), whose endlessly cigar-puffing presence in Vienna isn’t called upon until Spielren’s initial treatment is highlighted in the movie’s first act. Cronenberg structures many of the conversations with a divided frame; the close-up of “the patient” (whoever is revealing something) occupying one half, and the doctor in the distance making comments. He breaks this formula up with separate cuts to each individual, but it is in this distinct visualization that he represents visually what this material couldn’t as a stage play.
Freud is the most infamous therapist who has ever lived, theatrically preached about in every Psych 101 lecture hall in any given university. Thankfully, Christopher Hampton’s story is neither tribute nor tribunal, and he maps out a man who has touched down “on the shore” of a new idea. Much of the story takes place on a Swiss lake, with Jung sitting on its shore, or sailing off into it. The back-and-forth between that lake and Vienna mirrors the conversational patterns.
Jung is trapped within Freud’s theory that sexual impulse is the root of all human desire and conflict, desperately trying to find a unique spin or contradiction. He is not the one who most challenges the grand master, though, but Spielren. Masked behind those fits of earlier hysteria is a blooming analytical mind, one capable of challenging the patriarchy that has so diligently abused and treated her. Knightley’s lashing out in the first third is the most theatrical thing about the movie, though the close-ups of her facial spasms are deeply affecting. She is initially a tortured soul trapped inside her body, doing anything to escape. Watch the way Knightley pauses and stumbles through her sentences only to become consumed by shaking and screaming, and see one of the finest performances of 2011 at work.
Cronenberg’s recent films don’t often make room for such grandiose performances, and he keeps much of that contained to the beginning’s focus on Spielren’s talk therapy. Fassbender and Mortensen offer largely restrained but nonetheless palpable performances. They effectively convey two men trying to be professional in a profession that hinges on deeply disturbing subject matter. When Jung is compromised by his lust for his patient, he does not want his mentor and father figure to find out.
Power is at the heart of everything for Jung. Despite the casting of a warm actor like Fassbender, the dark impulses this man lets loose on Spielren deeply contradict the kind but stoic man who goes home to his wife and children. Jung finds his patient/therapist status threatened several other times as well, most prominently when Freud sends him a new guinea pig for psychoanalysis, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel). Though Cassel is only there for a few quick scenes, the way he interrogates every facet of his therapy and then turns questions back on Jung is one of the movie’s most compelling back-and-forths.
Most of A Dangerous Method is an analytical conversation, where grandiose yet young ideas are scaled down to the intimacy of a few individuals. Cronenberg is interrogating not only the ethical foundations of these doctors, but also himself as a filmmaker. He is analyzing the people whose initial findings on sex and violence run through many of his movies.
Almost every conversation of Hampton’s brilliant screenplay is filmed as if the camera were questioning every motive. Cronenberg catches every questioning glance when the characters converse, showing the quiet battle at the heart of this new practice.
For all its talk of psychoanalysis, though, A Dangerous Method is not overly-clincal in either the way it was filmed or in the dialogue. Many directors would’ve gone the Masterpiece Theater route with a story like this, but Cronenberg’s direction is much more interesting. Hollywood studios would’ve wanted a love triangle between Jung, Spielren and Freud, but thankfully the only triangle is an intellectual one.
At just over 90 minutes, Cronenberg never lingers on any idea or situation for too long, and yet he fits in everything he needs to. Spielren is seemingly cured simply by knowing what it was that was causing her hysterics, though the ever-darting eyes suggest that a cure-all is far out of reach. She has become an esteemed therapist in her own right, while at the end Jung sits simmering on the shore while he contemplates how he will complete his book. Freud would say they’re all simply replacing one delusion with another.