It is not surprising that a filmmaker would be attracted to the subject of psychologists. Both seek to expose raw, honest truths about the human psyche, emotions, and experience. In A Dangerous Method, director David Cronenberg went to the source of modern psychoanalysis, exploring the tumultuous relationship between pioneers Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
The film opens with the arrival of Jung’s latest patient at his clinic in Zurich. The disturbed, young Sabina Spielrein, played by Keira Knightley, has a severe speech impediment and a love/hate relationship with sadomasochistic sex. Jung, played by Michael Fassbender, decides to treat her with Freud’s revolutionary “Talking Cure,” using psychiatric discussion with the patient to fix their problems, as opposed to the physical methods of the era. The treatment produces a dramatic improvement in Sabina’s mental state, and Jung quickly takes her on as an assistant.
Wanting to personally thank the man behind the method, Jung travels to Vienna to meet Freud, played by Viggo Mortensen. While their initial meeting is pleasant, and they bond over their love of the mind, there is am obvious tension underlying their conversations. Jung sees Freud as surrounded by slavish followers, and does not want to become another lackey.
Jung’s ideals are put to the test when Freud assigns him to work on the case of Otto Gross, played by Vincent Cassel, a psychiatrist with a hedonistic, sociopathic style. He encourages Jung to embrace all which feels good for him and the patient, including adultery and suicide. Jung finds himself tempted by Gross’ ideals, and falls into a dominating sexual relationship with Sabina.
Soon, Jung and Freud’s tension boils over into a full-blown intellectual war between Freud’s strictly scientific approach, and Jung’s desire to bring paranormal and extrasensory study into psychoanalysis. Their fight not only affects the future of psychology, but Sabina and Jung’s relationship as well.
Mortensen and Fassbender’s interactions are great exercises in subtle drama. Insults and criticisms of intellect, standing, class, sex, and religion are carried through tiny shifts in language and gesture. They both portray characters with internal contrasts: Jung’s sexual repressions with his embrace of woo, and Freud’s unrestrained sexuality with his conservative empiricism.
Knightley, however, is an utter disappointment in this film. Her Russian accent is not entirely authentic, and sounds more like a caricature of Natasha from Rocky and Bulllwinkle. Her speech is stiff, with a completely unnatural flow. Listening to her is like sitting in stop-and-go traffic. Her performances in the sex scenes is forced, and conveys none of the psyche of a masochist. Worst of all is her attempt to portray psychosis. It’s too over the top, too reliant on melodramatic movement, especially her simian jutting of her lower jaw. During these scenes, I couldn’t help but think of Robert Downey, Jr. in Tropic Thunder saying “You never go full retard.”
The cinematography in A Dangerous Method is expertly crafted, both in composition of the scenes and the movement from one shot to the next. The outdoor scenes have a bright, almost overexposed, look, evoking the paintings of Seurat and Cézanne. The indoor shots have deep, rich browns, like the works of Manet. Cronenberg uses heavily, to great effect, shots with two characters in them, their appearance and emotions juxtaposed. The best sequence in the film is when Jung conducts a word association experiment with his wife. The quick-fire change from the cold, mechanical equipment, shot with a shallow depth of field, to the frantic Sabina, to the loveless strain between Jung and his wife, conveys a wide range of emotions and themes in a short space of time.
Ultimately, Cronenberg does not take sides in the debate between Jung and Freud. Instead, he depicts both as incapable of putting their egos aside, more concerned with being right than doing what is right. It is only Sabina who can see what is truly important.