A Dangerous Method

How would a psychoanalyst analyze David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, the story of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and the wild woman who came between them? The woman in question is Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), referred to Jung as a “hysterical” patient before getting better and becoming a therapist herself. In the movie, Sabina comes to terms (amusingly quickly) with the knowledge that being spanked, as her father used to do, turns her on. For Freud, everything is about sex; Jung is starting to think beyond the physical into the metaphysical, but his interest in Sabina gradually becomes more Freudian than Jungian. Sabina is, if you will, the daughter of both men, drawing inspiration from both — and, some say, inspiring both as well.

Splits/doubles/twinning are all over the place in A Dangerous Method, which makes this a pure David Cronenberg film despite the level of violence being held down to bottom-thwacking and one neat cut delivered to Jung’s face. Cronenberg has always been preoccupied with what he calls the “Cartesian split” between mind and body; he’s a bit of a psychoanalyst himself. He brings his usual pensive rigor to the proceedings, with little flashes of perversity now and then. Most of the drama is the drama of ideas; we can almost hear angry swords clanging in a prideful comment from Freud and its politely dissenting rejoinder from Jung. The irony, not lost on Jung, is that Jung must kill his “father” — a key Freudian concept.

Once Keira Knightley’s Sabina calms down, all of this unfolds in quiet talk in immaculate period settings. Michael Fassbender’s Jung, never less than exquisitely courteous, represses his feelings for Sabina while Viggo Mortensen’s Freud pulls on his cigar and sees everything coming (or would like to think he does). A little-noticed feature of much of Cronenberg’s work is that of a woman who yanks a man out of his comfort zone into strange new territories; sometimes it doesn’t end well for the man, but such is drama, and there’s always some sense of bold discovery, even if it’s entirely interior (and frightening). A Dangerous Method is about as interior as a movie can get; some of it feels stagebound (it originated as a play, The Talking Cure, by Christopher Hampton, who also wrote the script), but Cronenberg long ago graduated from drive-in gore-meister to actor’s director, and his camera attends to the smallest subtleties in the performances. We don’t need to know beforehand that Freud was a middle-class Jew who envied the gentile Jung’s marrying into wealth; a tiny, disapproving “hmph” from Mortensen says it all.

It may be that A Dangerous Method is less fun the more you know about the actual figures; to answer my opening question, at least one prominent therapist accused Cronenberg and company of “missing the story.” Well, that may be true if what you want is a textbook. For Cronenberg fans who didn’t desert him after he stopped blowing up heads and started exploring them, it’s yet another intensely calibrated portrait of repression and expression. Cronenberg remains the pre-eminent droll philosopher of English-speaking films, inviting us into his well-appointed office and probing us inside and out. Right at the start, in his first short film Transfer 45 years ago, Cronenberg told a seven-minute story about a psychiatrist and his fixated patient. A Dangerous Method takes him full circle.

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