Review: ‘A Dangerous Method’

‘As thoughtful and troubling as any film Cronenberg has ever made, and yet another masterwork from one of the most unappreciated filmmakers working today.’

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

A lot of directors calm down a bit as they get older. Robert Zemeckis seems to have dialed back on narrative innovation to focus on his beloved motion-capture technology. Clint Eastwood seems to enjoy his thoughtful, sensitive period pieces more than his anarchic early westerns and thrillers. And David Cronenberg has neatly segued from horror films about anxieties related to our gross little bodies and refocused his efforts on more cerebral examinations of our gross little minds. But even though there are no secretions or tumors to be found in his latest film, A Dangerous Method, that doesn’t mean that he’s done pushing your buttons yet. This is as thoughtful and troubling as any film he’s ever made, and yet another masterwork from one of the most unappreciated filmmakers working today.

But am I really equipped to judge? Is anyone? A Dangerous Method tells the story of pioneering psychologists Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) at the dawn of modern psychoanalysis, when simply talking to their patients qualified as a radical technique. At the heart of the film is their fundamental disagreement over psychological theory, which sounds frightfully dull when you put it that way. There isn’t a boring moment in A Dangerous Method. You’ll be challenged every moment of the way. Cronenberg has crafted a film that illustrates how Jung and Freud’s clashing theories about human nature were highlighted by their own life decisions, and that judges each character by their own standards as well as those of their intellectual opponents, without coming to any solid conclusions. Damn… That still sounds dull, doesn’t it?

It’s not a critique, pointing out that the film doesn’t settle into a specific point of view. That fair-mindedness embodies the strange and fascinating period that Cronenberg is depicting, in which everyone had their own ideas about the proper way to treat the neuroses and, often, the more severe problems of the human mind. It’s fair to say that we haven’t come up with a definitive conclusion to the matter, or there would be a lot fewer problems in the world today. But as much as we now comprehend about the nature of the human psyche, it’s easy to forget how ridiculously little we knew even one hundred years ago. A Dangerous Method depicts Jung and Freud initially as sympathetic opposites, with Freud seeking to repress man’s primal – and his eyes, almost purely sexual – natures and Jung struggling to develop the means by which to express those yearnings in a healthy manner. But Jung’s troubled extramarital affair with one of his former patients alienates Freud and deeply disturbs Jung himself, who has difficulty reconciling his natural desires with his social responsibilities and personal hang ups.

Man, this movie really sounds boring, doesn’t it? It’s really not.

A Dangerous Method opens with Jung taking on a new patient, Sabina Spielrein, played by Keira Knightley, who is given the thankless job of portraying extreme hysteria before being allowed settle into a subtler performance. Spielrein suffers from crippling personal ticks and severe difficulty in accepting her fetish, if that’s the right word, for sexual humiliation. Spielrein is such a unique case that Jung calls on leading psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud for a consultation, and their initial meeting lasts 13 hours straight. Despite the obvious overlay of their passions, Freud and Jung exit that meeting with distinct personal judgments of their counterparts, with each great mind finding the other one wanting. As the story progresses, Jung and Spielrein – who goes on to become one of the first female psychoanalysts herself – engage in a passionate affair that tests Jung’s theories on healthy human behavior and turns Freud into a stalwart opponent. Each of the characters in A Dangerous Method grow apart and towards one another constantly as their theories on human psychology are altered by their personal experiences.

It’s sounding dull again. There are gratuitous scenes of Michael Fassbender spanking a topless Keira Knightley, alright? Do you want to see it now? Of course you do. Man is a sexual animal, and Cronenberg understands this. But like the protagonists of his film Cronenberg restrains himself for most of A Dangerous Methods’ running time, occasionally releasing the sexual and psychological tension in brief, powerful spurts and then, almost guiltily, retreating back to self-analysis, wondering who, if anyone, has the right idea about what kind of people we really are, and whether we should feel guilty about it or not.

Cronenberg, again, does not judge. As Jung gets older he becomes convinced in the existence of parapsychology, and he actually dreams an accurate prediction of World War I. Yes, everyone has a legitimate argument in A Dangerous Method, which makes it feel like a dangerous film, but also a reasoned examination of a period in which nobody knew more than their peers, but couldn’t resist acting like they did. You won’t exit A Dangerous Method thinking that Freud, Jung or even Spielrein were “right,” unless you already had fully formed opinions on the subject. I’m no psychologist, and my knowledge of the real-life figures depicted on Cronenberg’s latest film are fairly limited, but I got a genuine thrill being in the same room as them for a couple of hours. What an exciting time to be alive. What a confusing state of being, judging your patients and yourselves without any kind of guidebook on appropriate and inappropriate behavior. What a dangerous method, developing psychoanalysis while desperately in need of a shrink yourself. What a great damned film.