A DANGEROUS METHOD
Precise, lucid and thrillingly disciplined film about boundary-testing in the early days of psychoanalysis is brought to vivid life by the outstanding lead performances of Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender, in David Cronenberg’s film which explores Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung’s falling-out over a beautiful, sexually hysterical patient. Shaking off any dusty remnants of a period biographical piece, the film tackles thorny psycho-sexual issues and matters of professional ethics with a frankness that feels entirely contemporary. The screenplay was adapted from Hampton’s 2002 play The Talking Cure, which was based on the 1993 nonfiction book by John Kerr, A Most Dangerous Method. 2003 stage play The Talking Cure, which in turn was based on John Kerr’s esteemed 1994 book A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein. Written by Oscar-winning writer Christopher Hampton, the David Cronenberg-directed film also stars Viggo Mortensen (Sigmund Freud), Sarah Gadon (Emma Jung) and Vincent Cassel.
“A Dangerous Method,” starts out with a case of hysteria. A woman, clumsily restrained by nondescript handlers, writhes and howls inside a horse-drawn carriage, her mania at once drowned out and underscored by the thunder of hooves and the shrieking of strings on the soundtrack. We soon learn soon enough that she is Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a disturbed young Russian en route to a clinic in Zurich some time in the early 20th century. But at the moment, she seems more like a wild animal. This abrupt and rather frightening introduction — the viewer is pitched headlong not only into Sabina’s company but also into her condition — is an emphatic announcement of some of the film’s intentions.
Spielrein (Knightley) is put under the care of Jung (Fassbender) at the Burgholzli mental hospital outside Zurich in 1904. She is treated by Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), who calls the nascent method for dealing with problems like hers “psychanalysis.”Clearly intelligent, she is also subject to seizures so violent it looks as though she might turn inside out. Fortunately, under Jung’s fastidious care, Sabina gradually gets a grip on her issues and can assess herself with a measure of intellectual composure, the performance modulates into something fully felt and genuinely impressive. (if this were a different sort of Cronenberg film, she might have actually done so).
The subject of analysis — a deceptively dry clinical term that is not out of place in reference to this subtle and intellectually thrilling true story — is the way unruly desires and emotions struggle with efforts to tame and confine them . The startling violence of Sabina’s disorder, which turns her, even in moments of relative calm, into a twisted, sputtering wreck, is also a signal that, appearances to the contraryJung, already a Freudian even though he has not yet met the master, he learns that Spielrein’s sexual fear and sense of humiliation stems from abuse dished out by her father from the time she was four. Screaming and alarmingly jutting out her jaw in extremis, Knightley starts at a pitch so high as to provoke fear of where she’ll go from there When the two analytical pathfinders eventually meet, they flatter one another and have much to discuss; for his part, Freud (a pleasantly aged Mortensen) is pleased to welcome a Catholic into his circle, given his concern over its perception as a strictly Jewish domain, while even at this early stage, Jung has misgivings at the older man’s tendancy to connect nearly every symptom to sexuality.
Hampton pivots the drama on the character of another fellow analyst, sent to Jung by Freud,Otto Gross (fierce Vincent Cassel), a cocaine addict sent by Freud to Jung. One of these is Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), a fellow analyst, who turns out to be a feral and charming emanation of pure id, an imp of the Freudian perverse. Otto does not just sleep with his patients; he also takes the flouting of ethical norms as a therapeutic and moral necessity. He manages, through a blend of rhetorical flim-flam and Byronic charisma, to argue the fastidious Jung into bed with Sabina (though she is the one who makes the first move). She and Otto represent both the lawlessness of the Freudian unconscious — the disruptive force of untamed libido — and what might be called a Cronenbergian principle of uncontrollability. Ms. Knightley’s performance might at first seem grotesque and overdone. She twists her arms together and extends her lower jaw like a demented snapping turtle, stammering (in a thick Russian accent) and making her already prominent eyes pop out of her skull. But what looks like willful freakishness is crucial to the film’s logic, which depends partly on the contrast between Sabina’s hysteria and the respectable reserve of Carl and Emma’s domestic life, and partly on Sabina’s growing ability to understand and express herself.An obsessive whose motto is, “Don’t repress anything,” Gross lives up to it by routinely sleeping with his patients and believes Freud (the father of six) is preoccupied by sex because he doesn’t get any. This sets Jung to agonizing over the question of why people devote so much effort to suppressing their most natural instincts, perhaps, in particular, himself. Goaded by Spielrein to divest her of her virginity, give her the sexual experience she lacks and “be ferocious” in the bargain, Jung finally casts off his habitual restraints and dives into a torrid affair with his patient, which has major implications for all three of the main characters.
Sabina, emotionally connected to Jung (who remains guiltily devoted to his aristocratic wife, Emma, played by Sarah Gadon), finds more intellectual affinity with Freud, who reminds her at one point that, unlike Jung, they are both Jews. Shortly after Spielrein insists that Jung admit everything to Freud, the two men sail to the United States to attend a conference. Gazing at Manhattan as their ship approaches, Freud wonders, “Do you think they know we’re on our way, bringing them the plague?” It’s a great line, and if indeed what they imported was a plague, it was one obliging individuals to look inward, analyze their behavior, ponder the balance of liberation and repression, question their nature rather than blandly accept it.
“A Dangerous Method” is full of ideas about sexuality — some quite provocative, even a century after their first articulation — but it also recognizes and communicates the erotic power of ideas. There are scenes of kinky activity between Sabina and Jung that will no doubt enjoy long life in specialized corners of the Internet, but the most unsettling aspect of “A Dangerous Method” may be the links it suggests between sex and thinking. The mind is both slave and master of the body’s appetites, and the absurd and terrifying task of stabilizing that dynamic, in theory and in practice, is embraced equally by the film and the fragile, serious historical figures who inhabit it. The technique Jung adopts with Sabina, even before traveling to Austria to meet Freud, is the talking cure. She sits with her back to him and recalls traumatic episodes from her childhood, while he takes notes and asks questions. It is also marvelous to see Freud, that embattled colossus, restored to his human dimensions by Mr. Mortensen. His sly performance is so convincingly full of humor, warmth and vanity that it renders moot just about every other posthumous representation of the patriarch of psychoanalysis. In various combinations and in shifting roles, Sabina, Jung and Freud are engaged in an expedition into the uncharted territory of the unconscious. Jung and his patient, in particular, do so with a sense of novelty and risk. The feeling of stepping into terra incognita makes “A Dangerous Method” something of an adventure story. It also at times has the quiet, uncanny mood of a horror movie, albeit one whose monsters are invisible, living inside the souls they menace.
Jung, with his neatly trimmed mustache and his studious Protestant politesse, seems to embody an ideal of upright Germanic propriety. He is serious, attentive and curiously passive, becoming aware of his own feelings only when other people point them out to him. As Jung, Fassbender creates the picture of a disciplined, successful young doctor; fastidiously groomed and sporting perfectly trimmed moustache and wire-rimmed glasses, he’s got a proper, wealthy wife (Sarah Gadon), a child and a few more to come. Physically and tempermentally, he seems so trim and tight that he could almost bust apart; in fact, he must.
As Sabina, Ms. Knightley’s facial expressions and bodily contortions seem deliberately drawn from the 19th-century iconography of hysteria. But if she is a revenant from an age before Prozac, Sabina is also an uncannily modern spirit, whose torments are as recognizable as her symptoms are outlandish. And Jung, as he gropes after ultimate meanings and obscure symbols, is surely one of us, an ambivalent inhabitant of the country Freud discovered.
“A Dangerous Method” is so strange and unnerving precisely because the world it depicts is, for better and for worse, the only one we know. Hopscotching through a series of episodes from 1907 up to the eve of World War I, “A Dangerous Method” traces the shifting relationships among its principal characters. Sabina is Jung’s patient, his lover and finally a colleague. At the same time Freud and Jung act out a complicated Oedipal drama, as the younger analyst evolves from promising disciple into Freud’s heir apparent and then a dangerous rebel, whose mystical interests fly in the face of psychoanalytic orthodoxy. Despite having to cover stages in the trio’s relationships spread over many years, Hampton’s screenplay utterly coheres and never feels episodic. The dialogue is constantly confronting, articulate and stimulating, the intellectual exchanges piercing at times. Cronenberg’s direction is at one with the writer’s diamond-hard rigor; cinematographer Peter Suschitzky provides visuals of a pristine purity augmented by the immaculate fin de l’epoch settings, while the editing has a bracing sharpness than can only be compared to Kubrick’s. Along with Knightley’s excellent work as a character with a very long emotional arc indeed, Fassbender brilliantly conveys Jung’s intelligence, urge to propriety and irresistible hunger for shedding light on the mysteries of the human interior. A drier, more contained figure, Freud is brought wonderfully to life by Mortensen in a bit of unexpected casting that proves entirely successful.
Mr. Cronenberg is, of course, one of the great living practitioners of the horror genre, with a history of bringing fears both primal and contemporary — about sex, dreams, technology, the media, the grossness of the body — to vivid, shocking and grotesquely funny cinematic life. After the brilliant and nightmarish creepshows of the ’80s (including “Scanners,” “Videodrome,” “Dead Ringers” and “The Fly”), he has recently worked in a more classical and at least superficially less extreme mode. Given its long stretches of earnest and erudite scientific talk, “A Dangerous Method” might seem to be his calmest and most cerebral film yet.
A DANGEROUS METHOD: Directed by David Cronenberg; written by Christopher Hampton, based on his stage play “The Talking Cure” and the book “A Most Dangerous Method,” by John Kerr; director of photography, Peter Suschitzky; edited by Ronald Sanders; music by Howard Shore; production design by James McAteer; costumes by Denise Cronenberg; produced by Jeremy Thomas; released by Sony Pictures Classics. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes.
WITH: Keira Knightley (Sabina Spielrein), Viggo Mortensen (Sigmund Freud), Michael Fassbender (Carl Jung), Sarah Gadon (Emma Jung) and Vincent Cassel (Otto Gross).