Much of the media buzz about David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method has focused on the spanking scenes in this film about the controversial, but groundbreaking psychiatrists, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. The recipient of this punishment, Keira Knightley, has used every opportunity in interviews to talk up these scenes, seemingly in an attempt to boost box office revenue.
Ironically, it is the lack of real depth in the film’s exploration of the sexual themes involved in psychosis, which Freud famously brought to the foreground of the public consciousness, which has left many critics disappointed.
Serial Cronenberg-collaborator Viggo Mortensen – he has starred in the director’s last two movies (A History of Violence and Eastern Promises) – plays the self-assured Freud, while man-of-the-moment Michael Fassbender plays the studious and ambitious Jung. Knightley takes the role of a young Sabina Spielrein, who is a wannabe-psychiatrist whose own psychological problems have led to her being admitted to Jung’s institute, as she is clearly troubled and uncontrollably frenzied.
The audience is introduced to a mentor/apprentice-type relationship between Freud and Jung, flitting between Zurich and Vienna, where they share thoughts, experiences and case notes. Freud has a strong air of authority and the initially-respectful Jung soaks up Freud’s taboo-breaking concepts, while Freud sees Jung as someone who can help push his daring theories forward and defy the naysayers.
Jung is concerned that all Freud’s psychoanalytical theories revolve around relating patients’ problems back to sexual urges and repression. However, the masochistic Spielrein is the catalyst for the make and eventual break of the Freud/Jung working partnership. Her deep-seated issues with the unsettling excitement she felt from childhood physical punishment are at the heart of her hysteria and Jung uses Freud’s techniques while analysing and treating her. Her case intrigued both men.
Ironically, while considering some of Freud’s sex-based interpretations of psychological issues and dreams, Jung starts slipping from his rigid, uncomplicated family life and allows his own repressed sexual desires to break through his walls of restraint. He gives into the advances of Spielrein, who as well as being his patient and assistant, becomes his mistress and his outlet for exploring his inner feelings.
This triggers major changes – both good and bad – not only in the landscape of Jung’s thinking, but his married life and his friendship with Freud, which becomes steadily frostier, as Jung’s more whimsical theories frustrate Freud – amongst other issues – plus clashes of creed creep into the disaffection.
A Dangerous Method is an intriguing film, documenting a seminal collaboration of great minds and the theorising dialogue between them is compelling, as Fassbender and Mortensen strive to portray the magnitude of these icons of psychology.
It is let down though by the over-acting of the marmite-esque Knightley. The opening scenes, when Spielrein is brought to Jung, are almost unwatchable. Knightley conjures up some of the most laughable facial expressions and gurning imaginable. There cannot be too many viewers who could find her performance (including a very suspect Russian accent) wholly convincing.
Spielrein proved to be an integral figure in the progression of psychoanalytical thinking, first as a an analysand treated by Jung, then as she forged her own career as a psychoanalyst, but Knightley’s depiction is overegged and detracts from the good understated work done by the two male leads.
What also prevents A Dangerous Method from being a great film is that it doesn’t delve far enough into the meat of the theories and instead we get more of an overview, supporting by constant cigar-smoking and expressions of musing from Mortensen’s Freud. It lacks edginess, despite the subject matter, which is surprising considering the reputation of a left-field director like Cronenberg.
There is a cameo to savour from Vincent Cassel, as the renegade psychiatrist Otto Gross. The unhinged, sex-addicted and drug-fuelled Gross shocks and corrupts the mind of Jung. Two words uttered by Gross to Jung illustrate the overriding theme of the film: “Repress nothing.”
A Dangerous Method (15)
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel
Running time: 99 minutes
A Dangerous Method is showing at the Rio Cinema until 23 February and at the Hackney Picturehouse until 1 March./ 23 February, 2012