A Dangerous Method (2012)
February 27, 2012 2 Comments
Zurich, 1904, and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) is at work founding the field of analytic psychology when Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly) finds herself in his care. A young woman suffering from hysteria, Jung finds her an awkward fit for mentor Sigmund Freud’s (Viggo Mortensen) psychosexual framework, posing his own theory of neurosis to the man in person on a later trip to Vienna. What starts out as an intellectually stimulating friendship based on an understanding of mutual respect, however, soon deteriorates into a heated rivalry as the two pillars of pychoanalysis find themselves disagreeing on everything from the importance of sex to the psyche to the relevance of religion in their work. Spurred on by one Otto Gross’ (Vincent Cassel) teachings of sexual liberation, Jung embarks on an ill-advised affair that threatens not only his reputation but his role as Freud’s successor.
There was a lot I didn’t like about the study of psychology, or at the least my six-year experience of it: the endless statistics, the obsession with relatively trivial phenomenon and the self-defeating pursuit of scientific acceptance to name but a few. One thing that kept my head in the books was an insatiable fascination with the subject’s colourful past. Indeed, repetitive seminars on the particulars of facial attractiveness, the miraculous case of Phineas Gage and an over-reliance on pharmacology are almost excusable when at its heart, or in the deepest recesses of its mind, psychology is really just a sex-crazed dream gone mad.
In a way, psychology’s inferiority complex is at the heart of A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg’s latest, with Jung’s dalliances in parapsychology and “catalytic exteriorization phenomena” driving the wedge deeper into his relationship with self-confessed father figure Freud, who sees the discipline as above such hocus pocus. Between them, Jung and Freud are as conflicted as their theories of a conscious and unconscious, or an id and an ego, with myriad divergences in opinion threatening to end their thirteen hour discussions once and for all.
From addict to therapist in just a matter of months, Michael Fassbender delivers arguably his most interesting and accomplished performance to date. Whether masquerading as a picture of repression, spanking Keira Knightly to within an inch of her bodice or teasing his theory of a collective unconscious, Fassbender cultivates a depth of personality truly worthy of one of the fathers of modern psychology. Considering that his few audiences with Viggo Mortensen’s Freud are limited to a mere handfull of static locations and an intermittent correspondence, it is all the more impressive just how compelling their relationship is, a testament to the talents of both actors.
It is Knightly, however, who gives the film its edge, providing as she does the most easily identifiable link to the director’s past in body horror. While madness in the movies is usually confined to axe wielding maniacs and the numerous kooks played by Helena Bonham Carter, Knightly treats her illness as a debilitating compulsion, a possession, with results that are nothing less than hypnotising – and, on occasion, a little nauseating too. Combining a vocabulary of facial and full-body ticks with a deep seated lust for humiliation and sexual submission, her persona is somehow never defined by its symptoms, Knightly overcoming a dubious Russian accent to steal scenes and chew scenery with thunderous aplomb, even when she’s eventually certified sane.
Adapted from a stage play (which was in turn adapted from a non-fiction book: A Most Dangerous Method: the story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein), Cronenberg’s film is perhaps naturally strongest in the script department. While the decades-spanning narrative may slightly dull the story’s impact, the dramatic death-blow to this once-mighty friendship suppressed as if it were some base level desire, its individual scenes crackle with wit, intellect and authority. From Freud to Spielrein, Jung to Gross, each vantage point is explored, both critiquing and celebrating the creativity and credibility of a long-derided psychological approach, while never losing sight of the human drama at its centre.
Charged, provocative and surprisingly insightful, A Dangerous Method is intellectual intercourse at its most unashamedly manic. Whether you are seeking food for thought, an engaging period drama or simply a Keira Knightly movie that’s actually worth watching, Cronenberg’s is a dream come true – phallic symbolism and all.