David Cronenberg goes Merchant-Ivory. Or maybe it's Last Tango in Switzerland. While there's no denying that the Canadian auteur brings his pervy intellect to an otherwise buttoned-down costume drama about the origins of psychoanalysis, A Dangerous Method isn't for everyone. And especially isn't for fanboys hoping for another Videodrome or ExistenZ.
Adhering to history as documented by letters and journals, Cronenberg presents a movie of ideas rather than fully formed drama, exploring the conflicting egos of friends-turned-rivals Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). The catalyst for their professional embrace and personal rejection of each other is Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), Jung's patient-turned-mistress-turned-disciple, who intellectually challenged both men before arriving at her own tragic end.
Adapted from Christopher Hampton's play The Talking Cure, Carl and Sabina's passionate but doomed love affair (complete with sadomasochistic liaisons) becomes the foundation for a lot of academic-minded dialogue and dense debate. Trading away his eye for metaphysical horror, Cronenberg indulges in a more cerebral exploration of where the corruption of the mind and desires of the body intersect. He does this by surveying a time when Freud was just beginning to test his theories, Jung was establishing his persona, and "ambivalence" had newly entered the lexicon. Hampton, who adapted his play, is careful to never take sides in the war of ideas between Jung and Freud, and instead examines how these deeply flawed thinkers channeled their own personalities into theories that would have profound effects on psychiatric medicine.
Restrained and handsomely mounted as the film is, it's Knightley of all people who injects it with some deranged energy. Physicalizing Spielrein's mania, she explodes in fits of jaw-jutting fury, violently grimacing, howling and stuttering as she struggles to control her repressed sexual impulses. It's the kind of performance that divides critics, inviting mockery by some and praises of courage by others. Whatever your reaction, Cronenberg sees Spielrein as a brilliant and attractive proto-feminist, burning with desires that would challenge any male, past or present.
And Fassbender's Jung is the man who tries to meet that challenge. Intellectually ambitious and spiritually curious, he is an idealist who wants to rebel against his prim sense of propriety. Too open-minded for Freud's tastes, he is presented as a victim of repressed appetites, fearlessly and foolishly embracing new (and sometimes cockamamie) ideas, while never being able to overcome his aristocratic Swiss-German breeding. It's what incites him to have an affair with a woman who is, in many ways, his opposite. And from that affair blossoms true love.
Or so the movie wants to believe. Unfortunately, Knightly and Fassbender don't have any chemistry. They seem to be playing the idea of a relationship rather than its reality. As a result, the film's ending, which should have carried a tragic sense of personal loss, seems hollow and arbitrary.
Where Fassbender finds his true on-screen soulmate is in Mortensen's Freud. When together, the actors' scenes crackle with immediacy, intuition and intelligence. Their exchanges, no matter how abstract, are engaging, funny and ever-competitive.
Freud is the cautious, self-amused and pompous teacher while Jung is the hungry and too-easily intoxicated student. Freud believes sexual repression is the root of all neurosis; Jung embraces the mystical, believing accidents are actually guided by fate (in many ways, he was the progenitor of "new age" hokum). Nevertheless, their clashes have less to do with principle and more to do with ego, envy and love. It's a fascinating and fragile relationship that, frankly, gets too little screen time, as Hampton's script favors Jung's personal travails with Spielrein and the elaborate pseudo-psychology they use to rationalize their affair.
Ultimately, A Dangerous Method is a study in self-destruction. Cronenberg and his cast make clear that "normalcy" is an illusion and that neither Jung, Freud nor Spielrein can "cure" themselves of their own desires anymore than they can guarantee healing to their patients. Instead, the film explores how these three people interact with one another like a volatile chemical reaction, trading, challenging and evolving their ideas about the human mind even as they act out their own personal pathologies. The phrase "physician, heal thyself" becomes a dare, and each fails in one measure or another.
As an examination of psyche and desire, A Dangerous Method is smart and sophisticated stuff. As drama it fails, too often falling into repetition and even tedium. Cronenberg never rises above Hampton's stage-bound conceits, and his clinically dispassionate approach undermines the sexual-romantic heat it supposedly generates. Only a subplot involving Jung's pathological protégé Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) manages to emit the proper cinematic sparks. An intellectual rebel who disregards ethics, he puts his ideas into action and lives up to the danger the title promises but rarely delivers.
Opens Friday at the Main Art Theatre, 118 North Main Street, Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
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