2011: A Dangerous Method
The title and trailer of David Cronenberg‘s A Dangerous Method made me assume that Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) endures histrionic mental states and transforms into a seductress going after her psychiatrist-turned-lover Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), making him unfaithful against his wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) and destroying his friendship with his colleague Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Fortunately it’s a more intelligent movie than that.
Cronenberg as usual tells the story of subconscious sexuality that the real Freud and Jung obsessed about. But this is mostly playwright-turned-screenwriter Christopher Hampton‘s movie, adapted from “The Talking Cure,” which is in itself a condensed version of “A Most Dangerous Method” by John Kerr. Hampton is in his comfort zone with another period piece about the restrained, yearning, upper class. I’m not usually a Hampton fan, but the project landing on Cronenberg’s hands has just as much to do with the way he tackles the story. Yes, there’s some lust here but the characters also converse with each other with erudition. Working in psychology, they’re tailor-made into observing each other’s flaws, deceitfulness and slips of the tongue. Sometimes they’re in the verbal combat I’ve been waiting to watch on-screen, resisting while the other person imposes their viewpoints towards them. Subverting assumptions this film’s sexual context feels genius, Hampton and Cronenberg siding with Carl, questioning Freud’s insistence in the sexual.
Knightley’s performance was always going to be imperfect, burdened in early scenes with a younger Sabina’s schizophrenia. Name me an actress who can go from laughing to crying to yelling within seconds while making us get used to a Russian accent, I’m sure you can. There’s bravery in her physical portraying Sabina, protruding her chin and bending her body, as if taunting her detractors who make fun of her face, posture and weight even when she’s looked her best. She’s an animal in the movie’s first scenes. But what’s fascinating is her great work after her spells, transforming herself as the dependent lover and intelligent student. And even if she shows Sabina’s insecurities and paranoia about relapses, when she’s in a room with intimidating men like Fassbender and Mortensen and forming and verbalizing theory, she commands these men’s respect as an intellectual equal and has enough stature in her frail body to get it.
Mortensen has great supporting work as Sigmund, showing the character as confident about his theories and flippant about the anti-Semitism that both he and, he assumes, Sabina faces. Vincent Cassel appears as himself under the name of psychoanalyst Otto Gross. But keeping Sabina in mind, and knowing that this sounds reductive, all she has to do is climb down towards relative convalescence. Carl, thus, is the most difficult character to play, Fassbender embodying the struggle between repression and sublimation that Jung struggles with within the decade-long time period. He also gives us the theoretical and emotional heart of the movie even if he makes us work for it a little.
I also sense the characters’ ambivalence towards sensing a bigger – that is the war – conflict that will arise out of smaller ones like the ones Jung serve in and his growing rift with Freud. The movie’s goodbye doesn’t have the same feeling of dread, but separating these three different persons – they haven’t been happy together anyway – signals how they are never going to be complete without each other. And that Sabina has made peace with that but Carl, who has perceived her, among many things, as his theoretical muse, hasn’t.
- ‘Dangerous Method’ probes men of psychoanalysis (mysanantonio.com)