We’ve come to expect nasty creatures or literal out-of-body experiences (complete with fluids of all types) in David Cronenberg’s movies. While A Dangerous Method doesn’t quite veer into Naked Lunch or Dead Ringers territory, it does possess the director’s fascination with the psychological push-pull between order and chaos. In Dangerous, which is based on Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure and John Kerr’s book A Most Dangerous Method, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) forges his path in the new field of psychoanalysis guided by his mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). The story opens with the arrival of a hysterical Russian woman, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) at a Swiss clinic. Literally chomping at the bit, Sabina initially resists Jung’s attempts to try Freud’s methods, telling him that she’s vile and filthy and beyond redemption. Nevertheless, the good doctor perseveres. Sabina confides in him and, eventually, she heals enough to begin medical school and a torrid affair with an initially reluctant Jung. Eventually, Freud gets wind of the rumors coming out of Zurich and confronts Jung; meanwhile, Sabina prevails upon Freud to defend her honor. Ultimately, all three are changed by the shifting balances of their relationship.
A Dangerous Method is brilliant and even thrilling. In this adaptation, co-screenwriters Hampton and Cronenberg are most interested in dissecting profound matters, namely, the concomitant power of sexual desire and need to induce both creative and destructive forces. The three principals have provocative discussions about this question, and at some point, the viewer realizes that what’s just as intriguing as the sight of Jung spanking a very turned-on Sabina is intelligent people engaging in intellectually vigorous debate.
Indeed, Jung’s long-awaited first meeting with his mentor results in a 13-hour conversation. Inserted into the early stages of Jung’s temptation to embark upon the affair is the jarring (and delightful) appearance of another analyst, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), whose beliefs make the Nike slogan “Just do it” seem like a drastic understatement. Gross, the complete opposite of the staid, traditional Jung, revels in the physicality of his relationships with his patients; in a brilliant use of reverse psychology, he practically hoodwinks Jung into accepting Sabina’s offer of herself. The intense physical attraction between lovers is intrinsically linked to their intellectual co-stimulation.
Just as integral to the plot as the ebb and flow of the Jung-Spielrein pas de deux is the one between student and teacher. As the movie progresses, we see Jung pulling away from Freud’s tenets, going so far as to begin favoring mysticism over raw clinical analysis. The gradual rift between the two men, which is further accelerated by the awkward awareness of Jung’s superior social footing (thanks to his wife’s money), is almost heartbreaking.
Mortensen’s depiction of Freud leaves behind whatever cold, dry personification we might otherwise have connoted from the name. Instead, he’s wry, perceptive and very vain. He plays off Fassbender’s buttoned-down foil with the zest of a Douglas Fairbanks and the cool intelligence of Orson Welles. Fassbender dials down his rugged handsomeness behind wired glasses and a trim mustache, but his intense virility doesn’t go unnoticed under those Edwardian suits and ascots. Knightley gives a very brave if disconcerting performance, and while I give her credit for “going there,” she seems wrong for the part of an intellectual Russian Jewess, especially one who precipitates such a tumultuous conclusion to a professional friendship. Too often she leads with her chin, like a stubborn child jerking her lower jaw in silent disagreement. By the film’s end, however, I appreciated the actress’s ability to successful convey the sense of her character’s hard won self-awareness—something that causes Jung to turn to her again in hopes of finding his own. Ironically, the woman we first encounter mid-breakdown ends up more comfortable within her own skin (and with her own desires) than the man who helped cure her.