Since most movies are made these days for adolescents of all ages, we must be grateful for the few outliers that try for something more ambitious. A Dangerous Method is one such; and while its reach exceeds its grasp, we can be thankful for what we have in this drama about Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and Sabina Spielrein, a young patient of Jung's who undergoes his talking cure, becomes his mistress and eventually his colleague.
When Spielrein (Keira Knightly) shows up at the Swiss clinic where Jung (Michael Fassbender) works, she is all grotesque gestures and defiance. The psychoanalytic relationship begins developing sexual undercurrents, a hazard of the profession -- especially in those days of the early 20th century when Jung was still Freud's disciple and the id was always prancing around.
It would not, perhaps, be correct to say that Jung cures Spielrein. Their lovemaking is masochistic (on her part -- it's not clear what satisfaction Jung gets). The film is no more explicit about the kinky side of their affair than it needs to be, and at least some of the time there's a genuine erotic charge that enables us to believe we are in deep waters psychologically.
But Jung is married to the English aristocrat Emma (Sarah Gadon), a pretty but perhaps overrefined waif, and his super-ego demands a break. Spielrein is devastated but determined to go her own way as a psychoanalyst in training, and eventually gravitates toward Freud in Vienna.
It's an awkward dramatic transition, and the movie begins losing steam there. Jung and Freud (Viggo Mortensen) dominate the screen for a while, but their growing split over the nature of the unconscious is spelled out heavy handedly and unconvincingly. There are hints of Jung's idea of the unconscious as a mysterious, supra-rational source of spiritual power, but I'm not sure that a viewer unfamiliar with the psychological history would get a clear picture of what all the carry-on between the two was about.
A Dangerous Method was directed by David Cronenberg, from a script by the English playwright Christopher Hampton. I don't think I ever saw any of Cronenberg's films before, probably because I got the impression that he goes in for the sensational and shocking. His direction here is a mixed bag. Many shots are visually impressive and apt for the atmosphere he wants. He also seems to have a sound instinct for letting a scene play for just the right amount of time, never dragging anything out once its point is made.
As an actor's director, he's less convincing. I don't know what to make of Fassbender: he plays Jung as stolid and reserved. Freudian analysts were supposed to "disappear" as far as the patient was concerned, encouraging the patient to project emotions and conflicts onto him and thus bring them to light. So Fassbender's portrayal may be authentic, but it's rarely compelling to watch.
Mortensen gives a strangely one-note performance as Freud, despite having screen presence to spare. It feels like Cronenberg didn't know what to do with him. Except, ridiculously, to have him smoking a cigar every minute he's in front of the camera.
Keira Knightly gives rise to strongly divided opinion. From what I've seen she is incapable of giving a dull performance, but I understand what people mean when they say she is technique-bound. She has great acting instincts and deploys them cunningly, but it's hard not to be conscious you're watching acting. For this role, that is no hindrance because she plays a self-dramatizing woman, and rivetingly.
There are oddities about Dangerous. Was this a low-budget job? The computer visual effects are poor, the actors outlined almost like cartoon characters against an obviously artificial background in many of the exterior shots. When the boat carrying Jung and Freud to the United States enters New York harbor, the Manhattan skyline looks suspiciously like the present-day one minus a few prominent skyscrapers.
And what's with having Sabina and Emma constantly wearing lacy white dresses? If it's some kind of symbolism, it makes no sense. For Emma, the "correct" and presumably "repressed" wife, it might be appropriate, albeit crude italicizing. But Sabina is supposed to embody the allure of the dangerous.
I don't mean to harp on flaws, though. This is an intelligent film mixing sex and ideas, with that rarity today, a literate script. It's especially recommendable to anyone interested in the early days of psychoanalysis.