There is an unassuming shot near the middle of David Cronenberg’s latest film, A Dangerous Method that in any other context would appear contrived. Keira Knightley lays blissfully in Michael Fassbender’s arms in the bow of a sailboat as it coaxed along by a gentle breeze. This is the stuff of gushing romantic dramas, but feels a bit more original in a film that is nothing of the sort at its core. A Dangerous Method is that one film that takes a prolonged stare at its subjects in a stark, head-on manner and and examines the wicked and healing power of men and women embracing desire.
We are transported to a 1904 imagining of Zurich, where a disturbed young woman, Sabina Spielrein (Knightly) is delivered into the care of psychiatrist Dr. Carl Jung (Fassbender). Sabina is battling extreme anxiety, appearing so possessed, that is not easily watchable. As she tells Dr. Jung of her early life experiences, her face contorts and whips about so violently, one wonders if it might tear itself apart by the sheer force. She is the victim of what she describes as “humiliation” after years of being punished as a child at the hands of her father. Jung is intrigued by the way she has externalized the abuse, and begins a close and careful study of her condition.
This is first and foremost the story of Dr. Carl Jung. The other players are essentially the forces that craft his behavior and over a period of time begin to influence his perspective on the physiological world around him. As Jung’s interest in Sabina’s case deepens, he reaches out to the man he admirably refers to as Father — none other than the revered Sigmund Freud. After much back and forth correspondence, the two meet, and Jung is especially taken by Freud’s emphasis on the underlying power of sex in all things psychological. This only furthers Jung in his sexual interpretation of Sabina’s longings for punishment, causing him to need to make the choice between becoming an enabler or deterring Ms. Spielrein’s darker desires.
Director David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises, Crash) has taken a little known slice of WWII era history that would appear familiar at first glance, and delivered it in a way that feels observant yet never overbearing in its approach. Yes indeed, Freud is such a universally known icon, he has evolved to the point being a symbol in our modern culture. But Cronenberg seems distantly interested in that face of Freud. Rather, he digs deep into the brother-like relationship that builds between Jung and Freud and the gradual friction that pushes them to embrace coexisting yet ever conflicting perspectives on psychology.
The wide spectrum of performances in A Dangerous Method are the backbone that propels it along. Keira Knightly as Sabina delivers an unnerving mix of wide-eyed fear that melts into sensual deviance and finally a resolute determination. Vincent Cassel’s unannounced arrival as the brilliantly perverted psychiatrist Otto Gross lends a hand to the film’s reoccurring notes of humor. Even Dr. Carl Jung’s wife, Emma, performed by Sarah Gadon, has this tender porcelain doll-like quality as she watches her husband gradually distant himself from her. Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender are equally matched in their turns as Freud and Jung. Mortensen portrays his character with ease, lending a slightly humored version of Freud, never attempting to exaggerate the man as a radical eccentric. Fassbender never strays from the contemplating, considerate version of Dr. Carl Jung. Even when he begins to toy with his questionable desires, there is never a moment when we the audience loses faith in his compelling personality.
The film explores a vast array of human emotions, desires, thoughts, and actions. It is fascinating to observe the manner in which each character evolves and at times, embraces the repressed pieces of themselves that they barely knew existed. But their is a rather odd gap at the end of the film that feels if anything, flat and empty. Whatever understanding Jung and Sabina come to in the end about their fatal attraction to each other doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t know. A Dangerous Method comes across as a well conceived and brilliant setup of a story, without any compelling insight at its conclusion to convince the audience that their time was not spent in vain. Like the doctors it highlights, the film is a clinical examination that rarely scratches the surface of a meaningful diagnosis.
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