The father and young apprentice of psychoanalysis, Freud and Jung, deal with their own demons in this intensely fascinating character dissection.
For those who did not take a psychology module at University much of this talk of Freud and Jung will seem a laborious distraction. Who cares about penis envy and dream analysis? Why should a film about two horribly cleverindividuals and their insights into the human condition warrant a trip to the cinema? The answer is simple. It’s about all of us. While Freud and Jung spend much of the film discussing us lesser intelligent beings, we are given a unique insight into them. In doing so, A Dangerous Method places the shoe on the other foot. We become the psychiatrist, quietly gathering data on them and using their techniques to examine exactly who were these men who sought to determine how something so complex as the human mind works.
Set between 1904 and 1913, A Dangerous Method introduces us to Carl Jung (Fassbender), a young and promising psychoanalyst, as he takes on new patient called Sabina Spielrein (Knightley). While clearly a damaged soul, Sabina’s problems are not incurable and, once Jung has understood her masochistic desires, she herself begins to venture into the field of psychology. However, when Jung embarks on an ill-advised relationship with his young Russian patient it drives a wedge between him and his mentor Sigmund Freud (Mortensen) who differ on their beliefs of how best to treat a patient.
Based on Christopher Hampton’s play, which in turn was based on John Kerr’s book, A Dangerous Method is a powerful insight into three very different minds. The film finds a wicked level of black humour in addressing the contrasting aspects of the characters’ conditions. Sabina, played with stunning twitches and wide-eyed venom by Knightley, is a crazed, anarchic presence, a dominant in submissive form. Jung, again finding Fassbender in captivating form, is a controlling intellectual, susceptible to his own theories and arrogance. All the while, the sage-like Freud, played with deliberate subtlety by Mortensen, is a man too afraid to venture outside the strict parameters he himself has set for his field for fear of venturing beyond what is socially acceptable.
While director David Cronenberg is all to easily associated with his more gore-filled films but the truth is he has always had a hankering for flawed genius and the double lives they lead. Look at Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers or Jeff Goldblum in The Fly. Even Viggo Mortensen in A History Of Violence is a man at the mercy of a Freudian minefield of ego and id. These are people who exist on a higher plain of intelligence but are still susceptible to the same neuroses and psychological pitfalls as the rest of us. If anything they have furtherer to fall and Freud and Jung are clearly no exception.
A Dangerous Method is a film that Cronenberg was destined, by his own psychological fascinations, to direct. At times it feels theatrical, claustrophobic, locations never amounting to much more than a series of rooms. The occasional boat trip or walk does little to alleviate this. Where it does excel though is in delving into the characters’ headspace. The look of the film may be all sun-kissed lakes and smoke-filled rooms but the themes are pitch-black.
As Jung embarks on his relationship with Sabina suddenly their relationship shifts, he’s no longer in charge. Throughout the film there is a wonderful sense of who is actually studying whom, the balance of power between characters shown to be in a constant state of tantalising flux. Freud’s offhand dismissal of Jung’s theory that there is no coincidence is the catalyst that causes Fassbender’s frustrated realisation that he must break from his mentor, patronisingly referred to as his ‘father figure’, in order to take his theories to the next level. Sabina asks if Jung’s new mistress is like her, only for her to demonstrate to him that he is repeating the same old characteristic pattern all over again. It is through these games of psychoanalytical cat-and-mouse that A Dangerous Method engages on a cerebral level.
While Fassbender brings his steely resolution, so ably demonstrated in this year’s Shame and X-Men: First Class, Mortensen crackles as the pompous but softly spoken Freud. The two men are never far from a pissing contest but on the most intellectual level possible, two alpha males blind to their own folly. However, it is Knightly who acts as the most volatile of catalysts. From her opening scene; mad, hysterical, all jutting jaw and fist-clenched emotions, she is a revelation. Hindered by a Russian accent she still manages to be both ethereal and devilish in a single moment. Sent to tempt the scholastic Jung, she seduces us with her strength, her insight and her damaged tics. Expect to see more than a few nominations for her performance come award season.
A Dangerous Method is a film that might deal with heavy-handed issues but more than anything holds a wonderfully cynical mirror up to its protagonists. While they presume to know what makes people tick they are blind to their own shortcomings, making our viewing of them all the more delicious. Only a true psychoanalyst of Cronenberg’s standing could pull off such a feat.